Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
–”Spring and Fall,” (1880), by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Gerard Manley Hopkins was a 19th century Jesuit priest, an innovative poet, the son of a writer. His poetry was largely overlooked during his lifetime, and rarely published. He invented the style known as “sprung rhythm,” which he claims to have simply stumbled upon in folk songs. Indeed, upon entering the priesthood, Hopkins burned all of those works he had not already entrusted to friends. As a professor, he became frustrated with his students’ abilities, disillusioned with teaching, and has been posthumously diagnosed with bipolar disorder, or simple clinical depression. A tragic Victorian-era figure, among many.
At first glance, Hopkins’ work has very little to do with Polish composer Michal Jacaszek’s forthcoming masterpiece Glimmer. The cover art seems like an inexpensive nod to both “The Windhover” and Spring and Fall, the second line of which very briefly returns in the one-word track title “Goldengrove.” Among others, track title “Dare-gale” is taken from the first line of Hopkin’s The Caged Skylark, while “Evening Strains to be Time’s Vast” comes from the second line of the Jesuit’s Spelt From Sibyl’s Leaves. The most direct reference is closing piece “Windhover,” which is named after Hopkins’ most notable work The Windhover. Like the gold leafing described in “Spring and Fall,” and like the gold starting to tear away from its album art, Glimmer is beautiful and delicate, nearly perfect in its precariousness. But a gilded cover image is not enough for a modern, renown composer to bind his instrumental album back to a Victorian age priest. As music habitués, we may find it fascinating when artists combine creative works like this, when they acknowledge their launching points and references, however subtly. It beguiles us especially when those references are from an entirely different mode of expression: folk songs in poetry, poetry in music.
But why Hopkins?
We should save the question until after a full listen.
The old world tug here is irresistible. This is a place of low-register harpsichord, decisive clarinet, deft samples and transmission noise, all shot under a flickering light that relieves it of unnecessary color. Jacaszek stated in a 2008 interview that he eschews traditional musical effects like delay and chorus: “One of my most favourite processes is lowering the sound – an octave or more down.” He continued, “I’ve got a piano phrase in my sampler. Then I play it an octave down. The sound I hear is not possible to execute on any live instrument.” The effect is, indeed, otherworldly: instruments that do not exist, the nearly verbal static, the almost tactile underbrush. “Evening Strains To Be Time’s Vast” is such a massive creature that even its softest breath will rattle the windows.
Yet elsewhere — during some of the sudden dips in volume — we practically hear the composer shifting around in his chair. We hear the resonant brush of fingers across guitar strings, and the performer’s exhale into a flute. Such a fascinating duality and, not incidentally, the stated intent: “All my artistic activity is based on the intuition that there is a hidden reality existing behind or beside the material world.” The frequency of twos comes into better focus now. Two is the number of alternates, of mirror images and polarity: tracks numbered two and four (“Dare-gale” and “Evening Strains To Be Time’s Vast” respectively) are wildly different compositions from the rest. Exactly two track titles break away from the Hopkins motif. Jacaszek made extensive use of the second lines of Hopkins’ poetry, and in one case made use of the second part of a two-part verse. The two spools, and the two flocks. The two seasons: spring and fall. The two subjects: skylark and man.
Transcendent works such as this beggar comparison, although we can safely report that Glimmer shares the same rich acoustic complexity as Field Rotation’s Acoustic Tales and Vieo Abuingo’s And The World Is Still Yawning. (This fact alone poses an intriguing trifecta for top albums of 2011.) Jacaszek features the clarinet most prominently in “What Wind-Walks Up Above!” — clarinet … wind, clever, no? — which all but narrates the footfalls of creeping static and baritone noise. The three mix for an anxious cocktail. The submerged guitar lines of “Only Not Within Seeing Of The Sun” brown out as if during an adagio storm, always alongside the organic noise and droplets of electronic sound. But where Jacaszek truly raises the atomic number are the two songs we mentioned a moment ago, “Dare-gale” and “Evening Strains To Be Time’s Vast.”
Noise in music has traditionally been a subjective pleasure, if that is the proper word. Noise is easy dissonance, without which there is no music at all. Noise helps intensify our search for patterns and therefore helps reward the discovery. Noise helps scour the gloss from all of the la-la-la prettiness and helps extrude genuine beauty. But it is virtually unheard of for noise to function as objective pleasure: the pattern itself, the beauty itself. This is where the second and fourth tracks truly break new ground. The noise here is ravishing, universally appealing. Not just for the snobs anymore.
The opening moments of “Dare-gale” have been described as that lovely explosion, and indeed some kind of detonations seem to stand in as percussion. The nearly arrhythmic spans between harpsichord notes come off as heartbroken gangplanks. At times it all comes to a hazy stop, as if Jacaszek has put his hand down on spinning vinyl without first removing the needle. The pops of static and bits of sound grafitti are impeccably modern, and the one-minute unraveling from roughly 4:30 on should speak for itself as high art.
Two exits further, “Evening Strains To Be Time’s Vast” begins almost conventionally, and at the very least is similar to its surroundings: dark baroque, unrecognizable instruments performed by hidden musicians, a stalking tempo, compositional restraint. Twice a swirling clamor threatens to unmoor the track, although the second time the “curtain out of dirts and fuzzes” becomes savage, yet still undeniably musical, even logical. Distant machinegun percussion distinguishes this second wall of energy, and the cacophony tapers quickly to silence just moments before it becomes unsustainable. Notwithstanding the numerology of the album — what with its twos, and pairs of twos — this track really should have gone last.
So why Gerard Manley Hopkins? Glimmer belongs to us now, so creative intent really is beside the point (Michal Jacaszek only promised “some music based on poems,” not the study guide). So question is ours to answer. Let us start here: Jacaszek and those composers who are refurbishing modern classical for the new century have stumbled upon the sprung rhythms around us, and an entirely undiscovered art form is coming into view. 8.5/10