A Hundred Gourds 5:1 December 2015

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Haiku and Music: A Morganatic Marriage?

by Charles Trumbull

| Introduction | page 2 | page 3 |page 4 | page 5 | page 6

LeVines’s basic idea is not bad, however: read a haiku and have a musical response. Here’s an example of this pattern that I think works especially well. This is the famous recording of Jack Kerouac reading his haiku with a response to each, presumably improvised, by jazz saxophonists Zoot Sims and Al Cohn.

Kerouac, “American Haikus” (9:38)16

The pleasure of this recording is its simplicity and openness, and the spontaneity of the performers. It’s all right out there in the open—none of this knotted, clotted, mind-bending academicism. I find it a joyful experience to listen to this CD and smile every time I do so. Notice, however, how as you listen your concentration is jerked back and forth between the reader and the saxophone player. You have to refocus each time, even though the stimulus in both cases is aural. The way that the text and the music are each clamoring for your attention is one basic contradiction in having music and haiku text in the same time and space—a problem that only a few composers come to terms with.

Here is another example of a successful pairing of one voice and one instrument: the voice of Anna Howard reading a well-known Bashō haiku in a translation by R. H. Blyth, and an interpretation written and played by British guitarist Gilbert Biberian.

The first snow,
Just enough to bend
The leaves of the daffodils.

Biberian, “Six Haiku” (1:35)17

The keys to this recording’s success are again brevity, simplicity, and clarity—i.e., core haiku values. It may be of interest too that Biberian is a devotee of Webern.

Similarly successful, I think, is German composer Ursula Mamlok’s 1967 Haiku Settings for soprano and flute. The voices of the singer and the flute are interwoven. The text, a haiku by Ransetsu taken from Peter Beilenson and Harry Behn’s Haiku Harvest (1962), is often indistinct as the voice is used more for Klangfarbe (instrumental-tonal color) rather than clarity of content. Still, the piece is brief and the flautist does not audibly fight with the soprano.

A leaf is falling …
Alas alas another and another

Mamlok, “Haiku Settings III: A leaf is falling” (1:09)18

Returning to our consideration of styles of vocalizing haiku, we can move quickly past a couple of them. One is dramatic reading. Haiku are not dramatic poems, and they would not seem to lend themselves very well to dramatic reading, except in special cases. One of these might be Sprechgesang or Japanese-style reading. Sprechgesang is a kind of tonal chanting used notably by Arnold Schoenberg in some of his operas. The one occasion at which I tried to combine music with haiku was at the Haiku and Music conference at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, in March 1997. In setting my haiku. I combined Sprechgesang with squeaky violin accompaniment similar to the terrifying music in the shower scene of the Hitchcock film Psycho. Please imagine a background score like this “screech—screech—screech …” over which you hear my haiku:

in his garden
my neighbor has hung mirrors—
this August heat

The stylized Japanese style of reciting haiku is similar to Sprechgesang. Listen to this example from the famous Alan Watts radio broadcast of 1959. Watts reads classic Japanese haiku in English, Sumire Jacobs recites the verse in Japanese, and her husband Henry Jacobs punctuates it all with exotic percussion sounds.

The stars on the pond;
Again the winter shower
Ruffles the water.

Watts, “Winter” 19

I have not encountered it in my research, but I suppose it would be possible simply to sing a haiku, that is, straight-out melody, without any fancy embellishment. It would be a rare composer, however, who would be able to resist the temptation to apply compositional devices to the text as well as the music. These devices would include most likely repetition and fragmentation. These are, I’m afraid, anathema for the poor haiku. What could be more disappointing than this: after the haiku poet has done his darnedest to squeeze out all excess text from his creation, some music person decides to repeat a word or a line, or gives the same text for different voices to sing at different times, for example in a fugue:

old pond … OLD POND … o-l-d p-o-n-d … OLD POOND

and so forth.

Likewise, the composers’ practice of chopping up words or phrases and tossing them back together like corned beef hash does no favors for a haiku. Imagine the “old pond” haiku vocalized like this

n. n. n-n. n-n-n-nd! o-o-o-o-o. olllllll. PO! PO! no po. no po. …

It is sad, for example, that Mark Winges, one of the composers who seems to know the most about haiku and who even appreciates American haiku, chooses to obliterate them in his work. He has written three sets of Haiku Settings on texts by top-flight North American haiku poets, including John Wills, Chuck Brickley, O Southard, Eric Amann, and, mostly, Marlene Mountain. In a minute we’ll listen to Winges’s setting of two of Marlene’s haiku, but first let’s try to understand the kind of things that Winges is doing with (or to) the text. He writes,

The Haiku used in Haiku Settings cover a broad range, from the traditional 3-line, 17 syllable single moment/image poem, to the “heightened” individual words of Marlene Mountain. All of the texts are minimal, however, both in their use of few words to achieve their effect, and in their presentation: text surrounded by a lot of blank space on the page.

So far, so good. But hang on.

I have tried to carry over these elements in the music: melodic phrases tend to be brief, musical material is set off by silence, and texts of the Haiku emerge from purely vocal sounds. A key example of the latter is the way each movement begins: sustained vowel sounds (“o”, “a”, etc.) alternate with silence, and the text (“in the woods / in her old voice”) gradually emerges. Another element is the use of Haiku patterns in the music, specifically the 5–7–5 pattern (the syllabic division of the traditional 3-line Haiku), and the use of 17 as a “unit”. This element is like the scaffolding for a building-—not visible, but a necessary part all the same.

Finally, though, it is the progression of the texts and the musical narrative that create the piece. Whether the most significant component of Haiku Settings is the interaction between sound and meaning, their parallel movement in time or simply the beautiful sounds of the human voice is for each listener to decide. Perhaps “all of the above”? 20

A concert reviewer provides additional information:

Mark Winges’s Haiku Settings was delicate, beautiful, and modernist. The piece treated several American haiku. Each section opened with the vowel sounds of the following haiku; the consonants were added and the words emerged, much in the way that a printed haiku emerges from the blankness of a printed page. Many contemporary choral techniques were employed in this piece, such as glissandi and the use of sibilants as sounds-in-themselves, but the piece did not come across as a mere catalog of effects. As much attention was paid to the sounds of words as was to their meaning. The piece hung together quite well, in part due to the use of a reference sonority (not a tonic, but a point of reference). This reference sonority was based on fourths and fifths derived from the 5–7–5 numerology of the haiku structure. 21

OK, that’s what Winges and an admiring critic say it’s all about. The first two texts in Haiku Settings are Marlene Mountain’s haiku

woods a

in her old voice the mountain

Winges, "Haiku Settings I" (4:34)22

If you didn’t have the text in front of you, how many times would you have had to listen to this composition to get the haiku? Perhaps live performances could be augmented with surtitles.


16 Jack Kerouac. “American Haikus” from Blues and Haikus. YouTube

17 Gilbert Biberian. No. 2, from “Six Haiku.” Performed by Anna Howard, voice, and the composer, guitar, on Gilbert Biberian: Master Musician, promotional CD, a gift from the composer, 2004. Haiku by Bashō from R. H. Blyth, Haiku 1: Eastern Culture (1949), 81. (Apologies for the poor audio quality.) Recordings of Haiku 1 and 6, performed (without a reading of the haiku texts) by Jonathan Richards, guitar, can be accessed on the Classical Archives website.

18 Ursula Mamlok, “Haiku Settings III: A leaf is falling,” from Music of Ursula Mamlok, Vol. 1 (Bridge Records 9291). Tonay Arnold, soprano, & Claire Chase, flute. Boosey & Hawkes website .

19 Alan Watts, excerpt from “Winter” on Haiku: Alan Watts, a CD version (Locust 50) of the 1959 broadcast (total length 43:14). The entire recording was formerly online but was unavailable in October 2015. This haiku is by Sora, translated by R. H. Blyth in Haiku 4: Autumn–Winter (1952), 223.

20 Mark Winges, Haiku Settings.

21 David C. Meckler, “The Bay Area Bursts Out Singing.” The San Francisco Chamber Singers, Robert Geary, Artistic Director and Conductor; 10 May 1998, San Francisco War Memorial Green Room. 20th-Century Music 1 August 1998. .

22 Mark Winges. From Haiku Settings, First set. Haiku by Marlene Mountain (both from Cor van den Heuvel, ed., The Haiku Anthology, rev. 2nd ed. [1986]). Online at SoundCloud website. The texts and sheet music for Haiku Settings: First Set is available online at Mark Winges website. A discussion of one recording, including the haiku texts Winges used, is here.

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