SOME THOUGHTS ON POLYPHONY
A couple of years ago, I attended a summer school at Dartington led by the poet Alice Oswald and the early music composer, Stevie Wishart. They co-led sessions over two summers which combined spoken voices with compositional techniques, in effect creating choirs of the spoken word. Poetry tends to be monophonic, with one person, usually the poet themselves speaking their own words.
My experience of these sessions led me to realise the possibilities for writing poetry for multiple voices and the huge untapped potential for this kind of work. Freed from the shackles of the single voice, poetry becomes multi-dimensional. It allows for conflicting and complimentary authors, and creates work which would be at home in an opera or a greek chorus or a contemporary classical concert as it would at the poetry event.
Polyphony in literature is nothing new, of course. Bakhtin was the first theorist to identify the notion of polyphony in literature. One of my favourite novels, Wuthering Heights uses several narrators to tell the complete, decades-long saga of Cathy and Heathcliff. Longer poems often deploy it, too. TS Eliot’s Wasteland and Alice Oswald’s Dart spring to mind, with their cacophony of voices creating haunting textures which combine to make a whole piece.
WHAT IS POLYPHONY, ANYWAY?
If you have come this far, you might well be wondering: What the hell is is polyphony anyway? Multiple sounds? Multiple melodies? Aren’t all bands polyphonic?
Polyphony is where two or more instruments play together, but each person’s part has its own integrity as a melody or sound in its own right. So, while a Rock band has lead singer and a lead guitarist, the bass and the rhythm guitar are usually just supporting the main melody. In polyphony, however, it’s as if every instrument is the lead, and therefore there is no lead.
Polyphonic stretches of music do occur in some rock bands. The Grateful Dead spring to mind here, as does Dixieland Jazz. In improv styles of this sort, you often find that everybody is playing roughly in key, but each person is going off on their own journey. Vocal harmony groups like barbershop often sing polyphonically, too.
The overall effect is more than the sum of its parts. Listening to this music causes you to be overwhelmed by the complexity of trying to follow several melodies at once in some ways. Yet this can be oddly relaxing or cause a feeling of being ‘spaced out’. The act of listening becomes one of deep listening, a sort of meditation.
So, it is clear that inherent in polyphony are certain ways of being: equality, cooperation, meditation… They spring from the music’s physical qualities as performed or heard.
SOME ATTEMPTS AT THEORISING
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that ethnomusicologists and sociologists of music have been attracted to polyphony. Various ethnomusicologists believe that polyphony could be the Ur-form of music in humans. Certainly, polyphony can be found in folk music in a dizzying array of locations, from Latvia to Indonesia to the Congo. There is the Katajjaq throat singing of the Inuit, the iso-polyphony of Croatian and Albanian vocal groups. Polyrhythmic drumming can be heard all over Africa and this is a subset of Polyphonic music.
What all these types of music have in common is that they are local folk traditions and they are played by peoples who are ‘untainted by modernity’. It is hard not to take an interest in this sort of music and fall into various orientalist traps, of course. As a former Anthropologist, I can find a lot to quibble with about the following statements, which are the sorts of things I have seen written about Polyphony:
1. That non-western peoples live in more equitable societies and thus create music which is polyphonic, as it is participatory and non-hierarchical.
2. That non-western peoples are closer to the ‘natural state of man’ and therefore make music which is similar to the dawn chorus, where each part adds to the overall effect.
3. That non-western peoples have a better mystical understanding of space and therefore create polyphonic music which hangs in the air like a mantra.
4. That non-western minds are better developed and can therefore hold several concepts together at once.
5. That Polyphony is perfectly suited to a globalised world where many peoples live side by side, each with an equally valid voice.
Indeed, trying to theorise about polyphony takes us easily into the multiple dodgy realms of noble savagery, primitivism, orientalism, misconceptions about equity in less complex societies…. But it’s better than the other traditional option, which is to ignore global polyphonic traditions entirely and say that polyphony was invented in the early Renaissance in Europe. Perhaps I should at this point stop trying to explain it in socio-political terms at all.
THE DANCE OF BEING
Anyone who has listened to the polyphonic church music of Tallis or Palestrina cannot help but be overwhelmed by the sense of spaciousness and meditative expansiveness that polyphony creates. And there is something similar here to the dawn chorus. We are entering into a new way of listening. Rather than being presented with a persona on a stage, we are immersing ourselves into a landscape. It is music to get lost inside.
Robert Brisinghurst’s wide-ranging book, Everywhere being is Dancing, extolls the dawn chorus-like elements of polyphony. He says that humans learnt the sounds of song from the wild geese and the meaning of them from the aurora. At this point, any (mis-)conceptions we might hold about ‘primitive’ music and language must yield to the greater eternal truth of an attractive story.
POLYPHONY FOR WELL-BEING?
All of which brought me to an interesting question, which is whether we could use polyphony to make people feel better. The mental health benefits of being in a choir are well-attested, but is it possible that polyphony has even better benefits? I have posed a question which I cannot answer and would, I suppose, require quantitative and qualitative research done by psychologists of music.
But anyway, I am going with the working hypothesis that polyphony is good for you. It includes equality, community, meditation, pretending to be a bird… So it’s got to be good in my book.
In a future blog post, I will write about the ‘polyphony for well-being’ work I have been doing over the last couple of years, and will bring it all back to the poetry and sound poetry side of things. But this is probably enough to say for now.
“The Bells of Canongate” for Radiophrenia 2020.
A new radio drama, “The Bells of Canongate” has been commissioned for Glasgow’s Radiophrenia project. It will be airing during the last week of November, on FM across Glasgow and on the internet.
Maternal Journal – Polyphonic Diary
The brilliant maternal journal project, developed in association with Kings College London have asked me to contribute a creative journaling idea to their portfolio. This is the finished product. Click the picture to link through to more guides by artists and poets such as Holly McNish, Bridget Minamore and more.
Emerging Playwright at the Minack Theatre
I have been selected for the emerging playwright course at the iconic Minack Theatre in Cornwall for 2020. My play, ‘Forces’ will be staged in October, Coronavirus notwithstanding.
Docu-drama “Pulse, Dissipate, Disrupt” Commission
“On The Trail of Joan Lyneham” docu-drama was commissioned by FIMTEC and broadcast on Resonance FM and Soundart Radio. It tells the story of Joan Lyneham, the mysterious music pioneer who disappeared during WW2 and how several musicians and artists have been working to recreate and revive her ideas.
I have categorized it as a ‘Docudrama’, following from the guidance of Sue Roberts of BBC Radio on a recent Arvon Course. It combines experimental poetry and sound poetry elements, improvised by musicians.
Polyverse Supporting Jo Bell in September
I will be performing a short set of Polyphonic poetry in Totnes, supporting the excellent Jo Bell.
New polyphonic poetry project: Polyverse
I am working with Jennie Osborne on a polyphonic poetry choir. Our first gig will be in Plymouth on 27th August.
“Medicine Wheel” is now a guest poem on the Acumen website
You can read it in full here: https://www.acumen-poetry.co.uk/kerry-priest/
Headlining The Word Cafe at the Cott Inn, Dartington, 25th October
Julie Mullen’s superlative spoken word night, The Word Cafe, has survived its move from London down to the wilds of Devon. It is now firmly established as one of the best poetry events in the South West and it is an absolute pleasure to be reading there.
Sharing the bill are Susan Taylor, whose wild and mythical words are simply spellbinding and also Antonia Eastwood, who brings a phenomenal energy to the stage.
Last few signed copies left. Give the gift of poetry this Christmas!
May as well try and send these out while it’s stil 2018, I guess!
A copy can be yours for only £10 including post and packaging to the UK. Send me a message through the contact me page or via @kes_priest on Twitter to get your hands on it.
“Medicine Wheel” to appear in Acumen September 2018.
I am working on a sequence of poems about my experiences of IVF, drawing together themes of science and magic. Medicine Wheel was the first fruit of what I hope will one day become a pamphlet.
The poem uses the language of shamanic ritual and explores what happens when we fail to tame nature through either natural or supernatural means.
“The Assisi Machine” radio drama to be broadcast on 26 Radio stations
I wrote a play and did the sound design for it. It was my first foray into radio drama and an amazing learning exercise. The play has been syndicated to 26 radio stations through the Radia network, based in Vienna.
It is now permalinked here :
Here’s the blurb:
If we could hear the voice of nature, what would it say? And could humans use technology to strengthen their connection with nature?
Starting with the music and letting this guide the story, the Assisi Machine is a thrilling murder mystery which puts electronic sound technology at the heart of the action.
The show features three drone music sound collages which help move the plot along.
Parts of the play are written in dramatic verse, a favourite form of Shakespeare and Goethe, which is pretty unknown in recent times.
I have been selected for Eyewear’s anthology, Best New British and Irish Poets 2018.
Here it is.
Maggie Smith says in her introduction that she particularly liked “Kerry Priest’s… brilliant use of gallows humour”.
SOME NEW PUBLICATIONS
“Mid-afternoon” and “Learning the Ropes” will appear in the Moor Poets Anthology 2018.
“St Davids” was published in The Broadsheet in September 2017.
Highly commended in the Bradford on Avon Arts Festival Poetry Competition for my poem, “Debussy writes Images”.
Shortlisted for this year’s Bridport Prize with two poems, “The unintentional side-benefits of a slow and painful premature death” and “Lines written in intensive care in Croatia”.
SOME PAST READINGS
Pucker poets stage, Glas-Denbury Festival, July 2017 and 2018.
Stanza Extravaganza at the Artizan Gallery in Torquay, Monday 29th Jan 2018
The Word Cafe at The Cott Inn, Dartington, 24th November 2017
Stanza Extravaganza at the Artizan Cafe in Torquay, 23rd October 2017 (headline set)