Reviewed: Songs Cycled by Van Dyke Parks

Revolution in the head.

Songs Cycled (Bella Union)
Van Dyke Parks

In 1968, Warner Brothers took out a fullpage ad in Billboard for Van Dyke Parks’s album Song Cycle, which read: “How we lost $35,509.50 on ‘The Album Of The Year’ (Dammit)”. Two weeks later, it ran another, offering two new copies of the doomed disc in exchange for one used one, for a nominal fee of one cent. The ads were by the maverick copywriter Stan Cornyn, who’d worked out that the less a record sold, the cooler it became – but Parks was always a non-commercial proposition. He is best known for facilitating Brian Wilson’s baroque dreams (and nightmares) as the lyricist for the Beach Boys’ unfinished Smile album. As an LA session man and producer, he spent time in Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention and worked with Randy Newman, Tim Buckley and Phil Ochs, among many others.

His solo work – classical, cabaret, Cal-pop, calypso – was always too esoteric for mainstream tastes: he’s the sort of musician who calls Ry Cooder a “Trinidadian” and doesn’t think that needs any explanation. But in 2013 we love all that stuff and, at 70, Parks is busier than he was at 45, bussed to festivals across the globe to talk with aphoristic economy on royalties, rights and the globalisation of rock like a kind of musical Mark Twain.

He provides unusual angles on the people he has worked with (“Harry Nilsson had detergent depth – tell him the date you were born and he’d tell you what day of the week it was”) and he genuinely believes that the casualties of rock’n’roll (Hendrix, Joplin and so on) “died in their efforts to bring music into a political potency” – which is both quaint and inspiring, depending on how you look at it. Recently, the 25-year-old LA dance producer Skrillex contacted him for a collaboration, declaring that they would “destroy the world together”. Naturally, Parks was sold.

His first solo album in 24 years is a collection of five original tracks, some new versions of old songs and some traditional material, with a title that says: “Here I am, as weird as I always was and maybe for the last time.” It arrives in a very different world from what faced its Sixties namesake: a post-Spotify landscape in which the kind of act that gets on Radio 2 might well play part of Camille Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals on steel pans (as Parks does on “Aquarium”) – or a titillating country song about a girl named after a herbal tea used in the homoeopathic treatment of chlamydia (“Sassafras”) – and not be considered dilettantish for doing so.

With its combination of pastoral grace and unexpected warps of key signature, Parks’s work as an orchestral arranger always sat well in psychedelia but he’s in essence a classical musician in the school of Gershwin and Bern - stein, with a bit of his former teacher Aaron Copland thrown in. Songs Cycled features several strange mini-musicals of the mind, the most chilling of which is “Wall Street”, a love song about 9/11 “jumpers” who leap hand in hand from the towers, “two flaming birds on fire”, and plummet to the pavement, leaving “no trace of their embrace”. He wrote it not long after the attacks as a response to the US government’s apparent efforts to erase the suiciders from the collective memory – though he couldn’t really release it at the time, having condemned Neil Young for writing a song called “Let’s Roll” about Flight 93. (“A Canadian citizen making a dime on the United States, calling them to war, is the height of stupidity,” he maintained recently.)

“Dreaming of Paris” is apparently a comment on the US bombing of Baghdad, though it must be the only song on the subject to include a mention of crème brûlée. Parks’s metaphors and internal rhymes (“It’s déjà vu, I’m tellin’ you”) tie his songs up in pretty bows, giving the impression that they are nothing but momentary escapes from real life. Given the brow-furrowing exegesis required to draw out their political meaning, it’s sometimes hard to buy his central idea that there is “nothing more precious than the song form to revolutionise popular thought”.

Then again, the notion that protest might be couched in light-hearted music is convincing – that’s the basis of his beloved calypso, after all – and the overall effect of these fleet-footed tunes is indeed one of powerful unease, especially in the tonguetrammelling, Tom Lehrer-style rhymes of “Black Gold”, which is all about the 2002 Prestige oil spill.

Parks attacks his work with a belief in the motivational power of music that seems unusual in this day and age. In his sleeve notes, he writes: “I am a rusty nail just waiting to be hammered down by an intolerant bastard with no room for what isn’t rockin’ or casually elite.” The only thing he’s got wrong is that there’s no one who wants to hammer him down.

Van Dyke Parks with Chad Kimball in 2005. Photo: Getty Images.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

NICK CUNARD/REX
Show Hide image

A muse is for sharing: Fiona Sampson's Lyric Cousins

In her latest work, Fiona Sampson’s verse is alive to musicality.

“Songs,” according to Tom Waits, “are really just very interesting things to be doing with the air.” Much earlier, a vase made in the 5th century BC depicted Sappho with her book of poetry and the beginnings of a few scratched lines: “my words may be mist and air/but they are immortal”. For Fiona Sampson, whose thought-provoking study Lyric Cousins quotes Waits’s typically insouciant comment, breath is also all important, giving “musical sense to semantic content, and creating a grammar for sound”.

Yet Lyric Cousins, as Sampson stresses, has a far wider remit than song. Rather, her study considers poetic creation through the sounding board of musical theory, exploring the ways in which music – here mostly classical music or “art music” – and poetry might reflect on and illuminate each other. Sampson is not just a well-qualified but an entertaining guide. A concert violinist who became a much-lauded poet, she has also been the editor of the prestigious journal Poetry Review and is now a professor of poetry at the University of Roehampton.

Based on a series of Newcastle/Bloodaxe Poetry Lectures in 2009, her erudite and eclectic exploration begins with the various constituents of both genres, including musical time and poetic metre, form and phrasing, and the tricky issue of “meaning”. She then examines specific examples such as song, opera and the sometimes overlooked aspect of performance, including music notation, as well as extracts from poetry, contemporary and canonical alike.

As she explains, the brief here is to think about poetry “not as music but as if it were music” (her italics). And so a discussion of the “disobedient” notes of chromaticism leads to the work of the composer Olivier Messiaen; in poetry, she argues, such notes are “whatever’s put in the poem for sensory, rather than grammatical or denotative, reasons”, as in the “bat English” of Les Murray’s “Bats’ Ultrasound”.

For those who cannot pick out “Chopsticks” on a piano, this might seem like weighty fare. But Sampson’s lightness of touch waltzes us along as she “maps connections and intersections” between the two forms, combining high and low notes with ease. We move jauntily from Gabriel Fauré to Robert Frost and U A Fanthorpe via flat-pack furniture, or from W S Merwin through Marx (Groucho) to W S Gilbert. Meanwhile Charles Bernstein’s radical Language poetry is equated with Arnold Schoenberg’s atonality and John Burnside’s “breath slur” lines are set against Mendels­sohn’s use of fugue. Sampson’s own poetic voice remains perfectly pitched throughout; she sees the “turn” between the octave and sestet of a Petrarchan sonnet as being like “a hay-bale that needs to dry on the other side”, while her central image of a train journey, moving us through space and time, drives on her arguments.

It seems churlish to complain about omission in such a wide-ranging work. But given the tantalising references to translation dotted throughout, not to mention Sampson’s own experience as a translator of poetry, a chapter on these different performances of the texts would have been welcome. It is also a shame that, although there are passing mentions of Greek drama and epic, there is nothing here on poetry’s and music’s shared roots in ancient Greek lyric.

But these are quibbles. Sampson has the intellectual honesty to admit that there are no pat answers. In the end, like music, the writing of poetry, as well as the reading and the hearing of it, are all something to be experienced, “to be released by us”. How and why we frame that experience comes down to our individual consciousness, sometimes shared, sometimes separate, fluctuating with time. As Sampson’s train imagery underscores, it is not about the destination, but the journey; what matters is that “we are on the metaphorical train as it passes through the landscape”.

Sampson politely refrains from including examples of her own work in Lyric Cousins so it is intriguing to turn to her most recent collection, The Catch, published a few months earlier, to find new connections in her poetry. She adopted her trademark free verse and short lines, we now know, because of childhood bronchial infections (“How I breathe is how I think,” as Lyric Cousins explains) and yet her deep, resonant musicality remains.

True to form, some of the poems in the collection were commissioned for aural projects: “Stone Fruit” was set to music by the composer Sally Beamish and “Night Train” and “Neighbours” were written for the Festival of Sound at Magdalene College, Cambridge. In such poems language melts into sound, as with the “clustered voices” in “Night Train”, which become “overlaid in patterns/like birdsong or weather”.

Elsewhere she orchestrates a more overt intertextuality. For instance, the painted bowl of “Parsifal” returns us to Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total artwork” – the subject of a chapter in Lyric Cousins. And in “Zoi”, a stray street dog in Greece is illuminated in the evening star of Sappho’s Fragment 104(a), “bringing back everything the bright dawn scattered”, as well as transporting the reader to the beginning of lyric poetry – and music. But most of all, Sampson scores the delicate symphonies of the everyday world, such as the “blur of steam” rising “like a breath” above a cup of coffee in “Daily Bread” with

the word lying below it

waiting to be spoken you can’t

quite make it out what is it

humming all day out of hearing.

Like many of its poems, The Catch hovers on the edge of waking, a time of the subconscious, the non-verbal. Its lush and trance-like beauty is heightened throughout by synaesthesia, a technique much discussed in Lyric Cousins: for instance, “the light that rose up like/the odour of plums and of vines” in “Harvest”. Subtle and sonorous, these poems arrive “once again at/astonishment/at the brink of dream”. And, beside the cypress trees in “Arcades”, they exist both within and outside meaning, beyond category of music or poetry, as sound and word merge until they

. . . do not

know the morning or the evening

when it comes

they only know this speaking

that rises and falls

in them like song. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. Her new collection, “The Paths of Survival” (Shearsman Books), is out in April

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit