Sweet Roaming: William Blake and the Fugs

The reason for this particular post is the sad news that Tuli Kupferberg, one of the founders of the sixties underground band The Fugs, died in Manhattan on Monday, July 12. The sadness of this is somewhat tempered by the fact that although he had suffered ill health for some time after two strokes in 2009, Kupferberg was 86 and had by all accounts lived a long and happy life with his wife, Sylvia Topp and three children.

The Fugs themselves formed in 1964, initially comprising Kupferberg, Ed Sanders and Ken Weaver before being joined later by Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber among others. I was first introduced to them nearly a decade and a half ago by a former work colleague who, upon learning my passion for Blake, was astonished (rightly so) that I had not heard their renditions of Blake’s poems “Ah! Sunflower” and “How sweet I roam’d”. While The Fugs had particularly captured the imagination of members of the sixties counter-culture with their satirical songs and happenings (as when they attempted to levitate the Pentagon), they also reformed in the 1980s and continued to perform in the USA and Europe over the following years.

Both Kupferberg and Sanders were poets in their own right, but also maintained an interest in many different forms of poetry. As well as Blake (who, I like to think, was the poet they considered their most significant precursor), they performed adaptations of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” and a later collaborator, Steve Taylor, had taught at Allen Ginsberg’s Naropa Instituted.

“Ah! Sunflower”, from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, was released on their First Album in 1965. This was a poem that had previously inspired Ginsberg to write “Sunflower Sutra”, a Blakean-Buddhist piece that ranks as one of Ginsberg’s best poems and clearly had an influence on the Fugs track. My favourite, however, remains “How Sweet I Roamed from Field to Field” from the same year. With more than a hint of country music, Blake’s strange and sardonic pastoral hymn is transferred to the plains and prairies of the west:

How sweet I roam’d from field to field,
And tasted all the summer’s pride
‘Til the prince of love beheld
Who in the sunny beams did glide!…

He loves to sit and hear me sing,
Then, laughing, sports and plays with me;
Then stretches out my golden wing,
And mocks my loss of liberty.

One of the pleasures of listening to such songs was The Fugs’s own ironic awareness of what the libertarianism invoked so frequently by hippies and yippies actually involved, that the prince of love as much desired to mock and sport with his children of the sixties counterculture.

In an interview with Jason Gross in 1997, Kupferberg remarked on the fact that before he joined The Fugs at the age of 42, his life was “trivial”, a blur after dropping out of sociology grad school in Brooklyn. His life, influenced by politics and the Beats, was anything but trivial after 1964, and the love of poetry that brought him and Ed Sanders together continued throughout the long decades after:

Speech is music… Some languages are very musical. When you hear certain people read, it’s almost music. Some people who do music, it’s almost speech. It’s a continuance.

Burning Bright: two events in July

As well as a number of Blake displays and exhibitions currently on show for the Summer (see Blakean Summer Shows for more information), two events are taking place next month in the UK that will be of interest to Blake followers.

The first is Burning Bright in Concert, organised by the Blake Society. Tymon Dogg has set seventeen of William Blake’s poems to music?and will perform a selection of these on July 6, 6.30-8.00 pm at the City of Westminster Archives Centre. A singer-songwriter for more than 40 years, he has worked with artists as varied as The Clash and The Moody Blues. He is currently working with Susan de Muth, who has directed several theatre pieces including?‘The Greatest Ever dada Show’, to create a theatrical spectacle based on the songs.

Also, a reminder that St Aldgate’s Church, Oxford will host a two-day conference on Blake, Gender and Sexuality in the Twenty-First Century on July 15-16. The conference will explore present and future directions opened up since publication of Irene Taylor’s “The Woman Scaly”, exploring how critics have wrestled and struggled with, delighted in and savoured, Blake’s provocative and abundant sexual visions. The event will celebrate and build upon past knowledge as it reaches toward likely concerns of the future.

Blake Set to Music: Cornelius Cardew

Nearly 30 years after his death in 1981, there seems to be a revival of interest in the English composer and political activist, Cornelius Cardew. On Friday 20 August 2010, the BBC Proms will feature a work by Cardew for the first time since the disastrous performance of part of The Great Learning at the Albert Hall in 1972. A late-night (10.00 pm start) mixed programme of English and American experimental traditions will include Cardew’s Bun No. 2 for Orchestra performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Ilan Volkov conducting.

Cornelius Cardew was born 7 May 1936, in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, the second of three sons of the potter Michael Cardew and his wife Mariel. Cardew’s career trajectory took him from the traditional schooling of a cathedral choirboy to an involvement in the most advanced musical thinking of his day, later rejecting the avant-garde to create music expressly to serve political occasions.

A setting of Blake’s “On Another’s Sorrow” dates from his teenage years. From 1953-57, Cardew studied piano, cello, and composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Having won a scholarship to study at the Studio für Elektronische Musik des Westdeutschen Rundfunks in Cologne, Cardew served as an assistant to Karlheinz Stockhausen from 1958 to 1960.

Most of Cardew’s compositions from this period make use of the serialist approach pioneered by Boulez and Stockhausen, including his two mature Blake settings. His biographer John Tilbury suggests that the choice of poet is significant, only partially explained by an artistic compatibility: “composer and poet shared concerns across a range of wider issues, both artistic and moral—in particular the dichotomy of impulse and spontaneity on the one hand and intellectual control and restraint on the other, and their perception of the reasoning faulty as potentially detractive of imagination”.

After 1960 Cardew began to develop the indeterminate and experimental scores for which he is best known, particularly his monumental Treatise (1963-67), a 193-page graphic score which allows for considerable freedom of interpretation, and The Great Learning, a 9-hour work in seven “Paragraphs”, based on the translations of Confucius by Ezra Pound. The Great Learning was to instigate the formation of the Scratch Orchestra.

My memories of Cardew the performer date from the late 1960s and early 70s—particularly of him as cellist and pianist with the free improvisation group AMM. Joining AMM was a crucial turning point in Cardew’s musical career and those performances remain vivid forty years later. They brought something new to one’s listening experience. Eddie Prévost, percussionist, was a co-founder of AMM, and remains its only constant member. He comments on its ethos:

The only way we have any purchase on the world is by our own actions. And just the thought of the usual strategies for political and cultural response—applying the democratic process—in the face of the overwhelming odds of tradition and existing economic and political power is immobilising. Our activities must be closer to home, closer to our being. To borrow from William Blake: it is in the development of the “minute particulars” that we have real power. As musicians our power is in how we decide to create sound. How we place a sound next to another. How we chime with or divert a musical course in dialogue with others—while at the same time developing the structure, the nature and the dynamic of dialogue itself. As an audience too we must decide how we discern and positively support these practical efforts in music-making, and insist upon such aesthetic priorities. If these considerations begin to command our musical lives and even become the basis for musical appreciation and cultural critique, then the power of those who wish to do things to others is challenged by the determination of those who choose to do things with others.

Cardew became a member of the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist) in the 1970s, publishing a tract, Stockhausen serves Imperialism (1974), which denounced, in Maoist self-critical style, his own involvement with the Western avant-garde. By 1979, now repudiating his former Maoist tendencies in favour of those of Enver Hoxha, he was a member of the Central Committee of the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist). His creative output from the demise of the Scratch Orchestra until his death reflected this political commitment. Eddie Prévost comments

The irony for those who stood apart from this particular activism was that the music itself turned out to be so conservative. For example, the tune for his song We Sing for the Future is excruciatingly reminiscent of The Eton Boating Song … Music for Cardew had by that time ceased to be important in itself, and was only of use in the overall process of political propaganda.

Cardew’s significance is not just for musicians or for those interested in the fringes of left-wing politics, for Cardew being a good musician meant being a ‘real human being’. Like Blake, Cardew’s view of morality was based on integrity, of being true to oneself—a morality that was not imposed from without by a religion or a political party, but which came from within. John Tilbury’s massive biography, Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981): a Life Unfinished, over 1,000 pages long and 20 years in the making, appeared in 2008. He writes

Both Blake and Cardew praised inexplicitness in art, and their own was criticised for it. Blake for his failure to achieve sufficient control over his reader’s response, and Cardew for the failure of his notations to secure an accountable response from his performers. Both men regarded these ‘failures’ as virtues: ‘The wisest of the ancients considered what is not too Explicit as the fittest for instruction, because it rouses the faculties to act’. Blake’s belief in the inseparability of art and morality would also be echoed in the humanism embodied in Cardew’s notational experiments of the sixties … and the idea that participation is essential to finding value in life, even when it is destructive, is fundamental to the meaning of both Thel and to that of Cardew’s own life.

Perhaps the persistent Blakean pattern that Tilbury finds in Cardew’s life owes something to the continuing influence of his father’s William Morris-like approach as a craftsman. Michael Cardew had been a pupil of Bernard Leach. Readers of Suzuki and Clark’s Reception of Blake in the Orient (2006) will be interested to learn that Michael Cardew contributed to Leach’s A potter’s book (1940) alongside Yanagi Soetsu, arts and crafts thinker and pioneering Japanese Blake scholar. The teenage Cornelius may well have met Yanagi at the time of the International Conference of Craftsmen in Pottery & Textiles held at Dartington Hall in July 1952 which Yanagi Soetsu attended with Hamada Shoji, Bernard Leach, Michael Cardew, and others.

Cardew died on 13 December 1981, the victim of a hit-and-run car accident near his London home in Leytonstone. The driver was never found.

Blake settings by Cornelius Cardew

[1] Chorale: “On Another’s Sorrow”, [from Songs of Innocence]. Written c. 1948, according to his brother Seth Cardew, but Tilbury suggests it may be a little later. Not seen.

[2] Voice from Thel’s Grave (“Why cannot the Ear be closed to its own destruction?”) for high voice and piano, [words from The Book of Thel]. Written in 1957. Unpublished.

First performed at the Aldeburgh Festival on 21 June 1957, with Josephine Nendick, soprano, and Cardew as pianist. Sound and Music (http://www.soundandmusic.org/resources/thecollection) holds a recording made by Josephine Nendick and Michael Finnissy (BMIC shelf number: 363). Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 1991 in Music in our time; performers: Nicola Walker-Smith (soprano), Michael Finnissy (piano). British Library Sound Archive B8292/08.

A rigorously serial work, Voice from Thel’s Grave has an expressive vocal line using the kind of melismatic writing that Boulez had elaborated in Le Marteau sans Maître. As one might expect from a composer who was himself an exceptional pianist, the piano writing is demanding—using the whole range of the keyboard to create a variety of textures. Tilbury notes

The dramatic opening of the poem is well served; the piano creates an appropriate atmosphere in the opening bars: music shrouded in dark colours, and at the climax, ‘Why a Nostril wide inhaling terror and affright?’ the piercing qualities of high percussive tones are effectively exploited.

[3] Ah Thel (“Ah Thel like a rainbow a rift in cloud”) for choir, SATB, with optional piano accompaniment, [words based on a part of The Book of Thel]. Written 1962. Published by Novello, 1963. [Fitch 231]

Sound and Music holds a recording directed by John Tilbury (BMIC shelf number: 2017). Date recorded: 28.11.1990.

Composed during the summer of 1962, Ah Thel appeared as a supplement in the Musical Times in July 1963. Unlike Voice from Thel’s Grave the word-setting is strictly syllabic. The tempo is “slow and erratic, ruminative throughout”. Tilbury calls it as “a miniature masterpiece”:

The music is reflective, sensual, and eminently singable, with the occasional spoken phrase cleverly integrated into the texture … In the final phrase the voices sing just two or three notes, independently of one another, as the music regains its equilibrium, the melodic semitones of the inner parts providing a poignant accompaniment to the more consonant outer parts.

It is all over in two minutes or so.

Further Reading

Cornelius Cardew, Cornelius Cardew: a reader; edited by Edwin Prévost (Matching Tye: Copula, 2006).

Edwin Prévost, Minute particulars: meanings in music-making in the wake of hierarchical realignments and other essays (Matching Tye: Copula, 2004).

John Tilbury, Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981): a life unfinished (Matching Tye: Copula, 2008).

Blake Set to Music: John Sykes

The music critic Andrew Porter said of the Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, that “there can be few English-speaking composers who … have not contemplated setting all forty-six of the poems”. Though, as Donald Fitch points out, few have actually realised any substantial part of that dream. Only the American composer William Bolcom has succeeded in setting all 46 poems as a single sustained composition. Many others have set substantial numbers of the poems, though not often as a connected set. A relatively unknown composer, John Sykes, came close. A provisional list of Sykes’s songs, compiled by Stephen Banfield, shows settings of all but nine of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience.

Sykes eschewed commercial dissemination of his work to the extent that he published none of his songs and gained no professional performances of them in his lifetime.  There may well have been others like him, personally modest, content to write for themselves alone or for a few intimate friends; in Sykes’s case these included the pianists Mary and Geraldine Peppin and the latter’s husband Randall Swingler. A Blake-inspired poet active in the British Communist Party and a flautist of professional standard, Swingler wrote (with Auden) the libretto for Britten’s Ballad of Heroes, and supplied Sykes with some of his song lyrics. It is unclear if Sykes himself was a Party member.

John Austen Sykes was born in India in 1909. In 1928 he went up to Oxford as organ scholar at Balliol, where he was a contemporary of Auden, Spender, and Day Lewis. One contemporary considered him to have been the most distinguished music undergraduate of his time. After Oxford, he went to London, to the Royal College of Music, where he studied composition under Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gordon Jacob. In 1936 he was appointed to the staff of Kingswood School, the Methodist boarding school in Bath, founded by John Wesley in 1748, and there he stayed, except for war service in the Pioneer Corps (he was a conscientious objector), until he died of cancer in the school Sanatorium in the summer term of 1962.

His only two published works were a Christmas anthem, The Child of the World (O.U.P., 1958)—a setting of words by Randall Swingler, and “Disposer Supreme”, a hymn tune published in the supplement to the old Methodist Hymn Book.

Most of his music was written either for the school or for a small group of friends. Over the years, he wrote something like twenty anthems for the chapel choir. A former pupil recalls

From the experience of my own lessons with him, where I learnt from him, rather than was taught by him, I have to say that Sykes was not all that brilliant a teacher: but he was far more—he was an inspiration. Without ever forcing it on us, he filled the school with music so that it was a natural and exciting part of our lives—and I don’t just mean those of us who eventually were to become professional musicians: it was for everybody.

Readers of E. P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class (1963) must have been puzzled by his digression into an irrelevant denunciation of Kingswood School. The puzzlement increases when it is realised not just that Thompson was a pupil at that school (omission of such data is typically Thompsonian mauvaise foi) but that his discovery of Blake must owe much to a charismatic, left-wing, Blake enthusiast on the staff—John Sykes.

As Stephen Banfield has pointed out, Sykes’s Blake songs (two sequences of 16 and 20 songs, the one from Innocence and the other from Experience) are uneven; the simpler (though later composed) Songs of Innocence in particular, often relying too much on unmemorable ostinati and strophic repetition. The best perhaps show the influence of Peter Warlock (Philip Heseltine) and his admired Elizabethans. Banfield continues

One wishes [Sykes] had allowed himself more broad unfolding canvases, as in ‘Hear the voice of the bard!’. But when, as in ‘The little black boy’ or ‘Nurse’s song’, an extremely graceful melody is supplemented with unobtrusive harmonic colouring, the outcome is exquisite. ‘London’ is an isolated essay in dissonant modernity; but what concerns us here is his distancing himself backwards, like Warlock, to the renaissance. Although some of his later songs, notably the Homage to John Dowland, whose texts are even more of a referential tribute than the music, he consolidated his neo-Elizabethan manner, the one wholly outstanding example of it comes rather unexpectedly in the last of the Songs of Innocence, ‘On another’s sorrow’. It is perhaps unnecessary to comment at all on such a perfect song … except to say that with its wonderfully crafted melody and plastic metre, its sensibility of both romantic refinement and archaic artifice, and its transfixing marriage of an 18th-century text with a 16th-century manner, it seems the perfect encapsulation in English song of one era’s transmutation of another.

Blake settings by John Sykes

“Ah! Sunflower” (song for high voice and piano). Apparently an early work. A later setting is Songs of Experience, IV. [Fitch 1216]

“I love the Jocund Dance” (choral setting for SATB unacc.)

“Jerusalem” (unison song with piano, January 1939)—presumably an arrangement of Parry’s tune.

Songs of Experience (song cycle for voice and piano, ca 1931). [Fitch 1217]

I. “Introduction: Hear the Voice of the Bard”.—II. “Earth’s Answer”.—III. “My Pretty Rose Tree”.—IV. “Ah! Sunflower”.—V. “The Lilly”.—VI. “The Poison Tree”.—VII. “The Sick Rose”.—VIII. “The Fly”.—IX. “Holy Thursday”.—X. “The Tyger”.

Banfield and Fitch list further settings of “The angel”, “The garden of love”, “The little vagabond”, “London”, “The human abstract”, “Infant sorrow”, “To Tirzah”, “The schoolboy”, “The clod and the pebble”, and “The voice of the ancient bard”; these do not appear to form part of the Sykes Archive at Kingswood.

Songs of Innocence (song cycle for voice and piano, June 1935—March 1936). [Fitch 1218]

1. “Piping Down the Valleys Wild”.—2. “The Blossom”.—3. “The Shepherd”.—4. “The Ecchoing Green”.—5. “The Lamb”.—6. “The Little Black Boy”.—7. “The Little Boy Lost & Found”.—8. “Laughing Song”.—9. “A Cradle Song”.—10. “The Divine Image”.—11. “Holy Thursday”.—12. “Spring”.—13. “Nurse’s Song”.—14. “Infant Joy”.—15. “A Dream”.—16. “On Another’s Sorrow”.

“The Tyger” (duet, TB + piano). An arrangement of Songs of Experience, X, with lower voice part added. [Fitch 1219]

“To The Muses” (for SATB unacc.)

Further Reading

Donald Fitch, Blake Set to Music: A Bibliography of Musical Settings of the Poems and Prose of William Blake. Catalogs and bibliographies; 5 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990)

Stephen Banfield, Sensibility and English Song (Cambridge: The University Press, 1985)



Blurring Blake

In August 1993, a federal judge sentenced the police officers who assaulted Rodney King to 30 months in prison after their earlier acquittal sparked riots in LA, Japan was experiencing its first non-LDP government since 1995, and in Britain the Conservative government under John Major was limping along after a surprise victory the previous year. Cool Britannia was nowhere to be seen, but one of the bands that was to define British culture for the rest of the decade had gathered at the Maison Rouge studios in Fulham, London to record a new album.

Blur’s previous album, Modern Life is Rubbish, had been a commercial failure and over the following weeks the band worked furiously, recording a large number of tracks, sixteen of which were to appear on Parklife, released in April 1994. The album debuted at number 1 and remained in the charts for some ninety weeks, establishing the band as kings of Britpop for the rest of the decade and inaugurating the mock-struggle for hearts and minds with Oasis that was a favourite topic of British media in the nineties.

One of the tracks recorded at Maison Rouge but not released on Parklife was a natty track, Magpie. With lyrics drawn from Blake’s A Poison Tree, it was included as a B-side on the first single from the album, Girls & Boys, which was released a month before Parklife itself. And so began Blur’s – or, more precisely perhaps, bassist Alex James’s – public love affair with Blake.

The track, easily deserving inclusion on the main album, is a perfect example of why the band was so popular in the mid-nineties. In 1994, however, Blake was probably still a little too quirky for the British public – but what happens next is illustrative of how his reputation changed in England’s green and pleasant land in a very short space of time.

The most important change was the huge retrospective of Blake’s art held at Tate Britain in 2000, but in the preceding couple of years Blake had become increasingly important after relative years of neglect. Millennium anxieties, perhaps, were better served by his prophetic vision than cool, ironic cynicism. Whatever the reason, Blakemania was on the increase and so James was one of several figures who decided to out publicly his interest in the artist, selecting the painting of Newton for comment in the Independent newspaper, October 2001:

I LOOKED at this and my immediate thoughts were: colourful, classical Greek figure, very nice. Then I looked again and thought, why is the figure in a fish tank? And what’s that geometry he’s doing? The figure is Newton, one of the great mathematicians in history. He worked out that everything is in motion and came up with his law of universal gravitation: what a feeling, the greatest sort of click moment!

I’m interested in religion but, unlike Blake, my faith is in science, the idea that we can measure the world. I didn’t realise at first that Blake is taking the piss out of science. He’s painted Newton at the bottom of the ocean and if you look closely you see that the body is more like maggot flesh than human muscle. The shape that Newton’s drawing is a piece of mathematics from the Ancient Greeks. By Blake’s day, mathematics was different – Gauss, for instance, was developing ideas of non-Euclidean geometries. So Blake could have drawn Newton doing something more sexy than fiddling with his compass. Essentially, he’s saying, “This man’s an idiot!”

James maintains a critical respect for Blake, admiring the picture but rejecting the artist’s view of the mathematician. Prior to this piece, James had also been involved with Keith Allen and Damien Hirst as part of Fat Les in the recording of England’s official song for the Euro 2000 football contest. Their version of Jerusalem coincided with a brief moment of hysteria around the hymn: Britain’s most popular tabloid, the Sun , announced “You have 31 days to learn these words for Euro 2000”, followed by an article on “10 Things You Didn’t Know About William Blake”. For Fat Les, as indeed for a number of other commentators in the media, the real issue was not just a football song but whether Jerusalem should replace God Save the Queen as the national anthem.

James went on to participate in an event marking the end of the Tate exhibition, Tygers of Wrath, where he performed alongside Simon Boswell, Jah Wobble, and Billy Bragg at the Criterion Theatre in Picadilly. Since then his interest in Blake appears to have diminished (or at least become more private). What is most significant for me about this slice of history, however, is the ways in which it indicates one transformation Blake’s reception. There are always artists, writers, musicians, and filmakers who are interested in Blake, but sometimes he emerges from networks of relatively private, low-key appreciation into much more clearly demonstrated public popularity. In this particular instance, when Britain had not yet tired of New Labour and Cool Britannia could be uttered (at least by some people) without the sense of being completely naff, it seemed to be particularly significant that British Blake was taken up by the public in the UK – more so even than now, I would argue, when more often than not it is English Blake who features in the media in this country. Blake, like Blur, may be part of James’s history now, but for a brief period he was the pre-eminent poet for the musician to connect with his own history.