Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Harp All Made of Gold (Thunderstack Production, 2006) by Klyd Watkins

Harp All Made of Gold (Thunderstack Production, 2006) by Klyd Watkins with Family and Friends

Review by Pam Rosenblatt

Klyd Watkins with Family and Friends’ Harp All Made of Gold CD has been produced three times: 2000, 2004, 2006, always by Thundershack Production. This experimental piece combines traditional myth telling with concrete to abstract and abstract to concrete music and poetry. It’s a country Nashville music style of the 1960’s gone wild, so wild that it takes the listener two or three tries before he can understand what’s going on. But once the listener comprehends the purpose of the far out, almost drug-like state of the music and the eerie repetitious chorus and speaker who often says lyrical phrases with veering off with the use of improvisations, the listener almost laughs at himself for not catching on the theme of the text more quickly.

Basically, Harp All of Gold CD is a story tale about what happens to Jack of Jack and the Beanstalk fame and to his cherished golden harp after the falling of the beanstalk and the mean Giant. The whole piece is composed to be sensed as a dream-like state, like the Greek mythological sea journey that Odysseus took when he and his sailors had to fight the music of the Sirens on their way back from Troy to Ithaca and their loved ones. Actually, Watkins makes a lot of references to Greek mythology in Harp All Made of Gold. At one point, Watkins has Jack kiss his own reflection in water, reminding the listener of Narcissus who did the same thing after a maiden cursed Narcissus to fall in love with himself because he rejected her advances. Then, as an effective, though sometimes irritating, musical technique, Watkins has created a chorus that echoes the speaker’s words and phrases, sounding like the choruses found in Greek tragedies like Sophocles’ Antigone and Oedipus Rex. The chorus singing on Watkins’ CD is, in reality, family members and friends of Watkins from Nashville, Tennessee.

There are nine tracks on this CD, and each track glides smoothly into the next. Even the final track (Track 9) runs back onto the first track (Track 1) as though the story never ends. It’s circular. And through the use of echoing repetitive phrases and improvisations of words on the CD, Watkins catches the listener’s attention. The spoken words sometimes are different from the written words inside the booklet found in the front plastic CD cover.

Now, this musical story tale begins with a man named “Jack” who simply “walked up a dry creek bed…” The listener knows nothing more about this man “Jack”, except he has “walked up a dry creek bed…” This concrete statement gently eases the listener into a very creative, abstract and experimental work. The next line suggests the journey to follow “… was/ /easy traveling…”, so the listener expects a clear and concrete music and poetry experience, although the background music reminds the listener of Nashville tunes. Then, the tone changes, as soon as in the fourth and fifth lines which read, “where the bank/was deep/enough to keep tree limbs/
from flapping /in his face…” Suddenly things get abstracted as if the listener is entering a dream-state of the speaker, as read in the lines that follow: “among the pathless / forest hills/ deep enough…”

In the next few lines, Watkins uses colorful, articulate description and a concrete simile to develop the story line:

that his staff carved over with
oval emblems of frogs and owls and
dancing ladies—the ball
on top—could be seen by Squirrels
beside the creek bed
bobbing above the bank top
as he hiked upward and eastward—
calluses on the bottom of his bare feet
so efficient—so dense—like those
on the tips of a bass player’s fingers — the skin
looks nearly normal and does not deaden
that feel.

The listener understands that Jack’s staff is a special one, craved so ornately with animals and “dancing ladies”. His journey hasn’t been an easy as the “calluses on the bottom of his bare feet/so efficient—so dense—like those on the tips of a bass player’s fingers….” But he is confused as to who Jack is and what the purpose of the journey through the creek and the increasingly abstracted music is. Watkins has combined concrete ideas with abstracted ones to make the listener feel a little dizzy and uncertain about the trip he is about to go on.

Watkins gets more concrete and informative toward the end of the section when the speaker reveals that “On [Jack’s] back a harp he carried,/ a harp all made of gold.”
Now, this harp turns out to be rather unusual. Not only is it made out of gold, but is a woman and sings to Jack during the nighttime when he sleeps. Jack only wishes that the harp sing to him while he is awake. Watkins cleverly writes, “the songs she played made him dream things She teased him/with choruses/about her giant—…” Now, the listener is becoming aware the whole composition of the CD – the music and the actual spoken poetry – is imaginary. Since when is a harp a woman? Since when can a harp actually sing? And since when does a giant actually exist? The answers to these rhetorical questions are all the same: “Probably never” – except through the assistance of a very creative poet/musician’s imagination.

Watkins is slowly letting the listener in on the meat and potatoes of the story line. The listener does realize that three characters exist in the story: a man named “Jack”; a singing female harp; and a mean giant. But where these three characters are headed is still abstract, still unclear. Finally, Watkins lets the listener in on another tidbit about the relationship between the harp and the giant and Jack:

She teased him
with choruses
about her giant—
track 3— choruses about her giant
teased him with choruses
Fee Fi Foe Fum
Dread so hungry
got to smell him out some
Englishmun Some Englishmun…

Now the listener has been informed that the harp was once owned by the Giant “Dread”,
and that “Dread” wasn’t a kind giant. Where “Jack” fits in at this point is unclear, except that the harp is flirtatious with her new owner.
In Track 5, Watkins clarifies things in words, though the music is still dream-like. The listener is informed that “Dread” is

The very ogre
Who’d tried to sniff out old Jack
For supper— who chased after Jack
Fleeing with the stolen treasure
But Jack made it back down
And grabbed his axe
And chopped down the bean stalk
As Dread tumbled out of the sky
Behind them…

This point in the CD and in the booklet is where the listener probably has figured out that Watkins’ Harp All Made of Gold is an experimental poetic version of “Jack and the Bean Stalk” – mostly after the falling of the bean stalk and of “Dread” the giant. A breath of relief for deciphering this complicated CD both musically and poetically most likely occurs. And the rest of the story line falls easily into place.

The ending of the story tale is interestingly left ambiguous. The question remains: Did this “Jack” really experience the climb of the bean stalk, rescue the singing gold harp from the mean giant, chop down the bean stalk and thus kill “Dread”, journey along and through a creek to a campsite where “He hoped they would listen/to him tell about the giants”? Or is “Jack” dreaming or fantasizing about this whole journey?

Klyd Watkins’ Harp All Made of Gold is a CD to listen to if you’re willing to open your mind to experimental music and poetry combined. If you are flexible enough to accept things differently, then you will enjoy Watkins and his family and friends’ work on this CD.


--Pam Rosenblatt/Ibbetson Update/Oct 2008/Somerville, Mass.


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