login view cart checkout

- OR -

>> previous screen

Luna, ChristopheróRain Taxi
Luna, Christopher. "Review of Doings, Jackson Mac Low." Rain Taxi.

The death of Jackson Mac Low in 2004 marked the passing of one of our greatest experimental poets. Since the 1950s, Mac Low had established himself as one of the most inventive writers in American letters. Working with grids, dictionaries, and chance operations, he developed several poetic forms that can only be properly realized in performance. Now many of Mac Low's scores have been collected in Doings: Assorted Performance Pieces 1955- 2002, a lovingly assembled volume that deserves to be studied and treasured.

Early in his career, Mac Low was inspired by Buddhism and the work of composer John Cage. As Steve Clay explains in his introduction, this led to work such as The Marrying Maiden, a play "written in 1958-59 utilizing some chance operations of Mac Low's design employing both the Ching, or Book of Changes and the Rand Corporation's table A Million Random Digits and 100,000 Normal Deviates' Non-intentional methods of composition allowed the artist to set aside his ego. A note adapted from a letter by Mac Low to Granary Books further explains, "These methods were designed to allow fundamental elements, such as sounds, to 'be themselves,' unencumbered by 'personal expression, drama, psychology, and the like.' "

Clay notes that Mac Low came to see that the poet is more involved in "chance operations" than the term implies:

Elements of the "Asymmetries" (as well as many other works written and composed from about I960 to 1990), including words, punctuation, typography and spacing, were initially, in Mac Low's estimation, determined by chance operations. By 1990, however, Mac Low had come to speak of the methods used in writing these series as systematic and not involving chance operations despite the fact that he could not predict results.

includes a generous sampling of the new forms Mac Low created: biblical poems, the structure of which was based on the toss of a die; gathas, Buddhist performance texts based on chance operations and inscribed on graph paper; asymmetries, "non-stanzaic" poems "with no regularly repeating" patterns, "of which the printed formats are notations for solo or group performance"; and vocabularies, poems based on a list of words derived from the letters in a person's name. Most of these poems are also exemplary pieces of striking visual art; for example, the vocabularies were notated by using several pens with different nibs, and the text may be rotated during a performance.

Each piece comes with detailed instructions for poets, vocalists, or in some cases, instrumentalists. Showboating is anathema. Each reader is implored to listen closely to her fellow readers and make decisions accordingly. Because many of the pieces can be performed by a cacophony of voices and instruments, silence is key. Many of the texts are very specific regarding pauses; in fact, performers are encouraged to "often fall silent and only listen." It is extremely important that the reader comprehend the meaning and the proper pronunciation of each word in a piece. Performers of "A Vocabulary for Annie Brigitte Gilles Tardos," for example, are charged with learning words such as "diester," "enolase," and "diableree." Virtuosity is acceptable but yelling is strongly discouraged, because "loudly spoken words need not and ought not seem to express violent feelings." Mac Low's general instructions, which vary little from poem to poem, are so brilliant that nearly any ensemble performer would benefit from adopting them. Ponder the following "General Considerations" from "A Vocabulary for Carl Fernbach-Flarsheim": "Since not only choices of words, syllables, and phonemes, and strings thereof, from the Vocabulary—and thus, too, for singers and instrumentalists, choices of tones and tone sequences—but also choices within all other parameters are made by the performers at their own discretion, they must each exercise great care, tact, courtesy, attention, and concentration to make every detail of their performances contribute (as far as they can ascertain from where they are) toward a global sound sequence and aural plenum (including ambient, audience, and outer-environmental sounds) each of them would choose to hear. "Ego-tripping" without regard to what else is happening is the worst of "wrong notes" in performing this piece. However, the exercise of virtuosity is strongly encouraged when it is done with as much consciousness as possible of its place m the total sound, especially its relation to the contributions of the other performers. In short, performers must be both inventive and sensitive to other persons and sounds at all times.

Many pieces written in the 1980s and '90s include a statement from Mac Low narrowing it down to two important rules: "Listen" and "Relate."

The book includes a CD featuring performances by Mac Low, his wife and collaborator Anne Tardos, and others, the earliest of which was recorded in 1973. "1st Milarepa Gatha" is a transcendent interpretation that features masterful interplay between Mac Low and the trombonist Jim Staley. "A Vocabulary for Sharon Belle Martin" is a gorgeous, maddening layering of multiple voices and flute. There is ample evidence of how well Mac Low and Tardos worked together: in "Tara Gatha," for example, the pair's voices keen, purr, and exhale around one another in a mesmerizing and erotic sonic dance. At times their voices take on an unearthly quality; in other instances, they sound like religious fundamentalists speaking in tongues.

Doings is essential reading for anyone who believes in the importance of voice and sound to the poetic tradition. One can only hope that writers will approach it as a workbook upon which to base their own performances. But whether one takes on the daunting task of performing one of Mac Low's poems according to his instructions, or uses the book as the inspiration for their own experiments, Doings is a text which ought to be put into practice.

Granary Books 168 Mercer Street, 2nd floor New York, NY 10012 USAtel 212 337 9979fax 212 337 9774info@granarybooks.com

join our email list