Martin Langford. Eardrum: Poems and Prose about Music. Sydney: Puncher and Wattman 2019. ISBN: 9781925780505
What is the relationship between poetry and music? And what does it mean to listen to the aural tapestries which music makes, to trace our own paths of response and offer them back into words for communication? The questions regarding what is occurring when we listen – what precisely we are listening to, how we receive and interpret the text of music – and how we might become part of that weave of call and response, are central to the role of art and its reception more broadly. They are also similar to what we might ask specifically in relation to the production and interpretation of poetry. Martin Langford’s eighth and most recent collection, Eardrum, uses a range of poetry and prose to articulate these problematics so central to any aesthetic enterprise; in so doing, he draws the reader into the spell of his own poetic thinking and listening, embodying the complex relationship between words and music, composing and interpretation. The two art forms are shown here to be intertwined, looking both inward to contemplation and outwards towards connection, to delights in the moment of apprehension and to link us to broader purposes.
The first section or ‘movement’ of the book includes poems which focus both on elements of paying attention to the art form of music as well as on particular instances of its performance. Langford’s tastes in and knowledge of musical styles is vast; his commentary ranges from classical composers such as Brahms, Mozart, Beethoven and Bach through to Shostakovich, Mahler, Randy Newman, Bob Dylan, Ariana Grande. While often bounded within genre and form, Langford’s writing suggests that music occurs in a variety of places for a variety of purposes and effects.
The production of music, while often broad in its appeal, is of course bounded within the specificity of its context. For instance, the poet notes,
In Brahms’ world, kindness was possible.
There were flowers in the wood,
the conservatory. The composer
looked out over laneways where sun
starked and haloed the branches
By contrast, in ‘Shostakovich Trio, Opus 67’, in the shadow of Soviet control, ‘the bones are all dust, / and the crimes of the tyrants forgotten’, leaving only lingering ‘dances and airs’ (28) to the survivors. Or, in ‘1956: Graduation Ball’, the smug and sexually repressed Board members, ‘squeezed into waistlines’, are also subject to music as an organising principle: ‘Bass counts it in, One-and -Three… (9). Even Ariana, at her tribute concert to the victims of terrorism in Manchester in 2017, ‘just keeps on singing / and wearing those pants’ (55). Music, as a principle of organised sound, designed to engage us both emotionally and intellectually, can be seen to undertake a number of roles: to galvanise community, to express the depths of human spiritual and sensual yearning, even to act as ideological enforcer.
The ability to make music – to put sound sequences and pitch and pause together in such ways that speak to human experience, that arrest and challenge the listener – is found in both culturally elevated spaces and also within the environments of the everyday. In the ‘kerfuffle’ of the concert, with its ‘evening dress/maestro’s spak hair’ (34), Langford identifies a persistent impulse ‘to establish… / that they – / and all those who are present – / are more than the void’. As William Carlos Williams once wrote, ‘Sing me a song to make death tolerable’; in this sense, every aesthetic act plays, like Orpheus, across that void – again and again. Yet in ‘Caravan Park’, in a very different cultural milieu, ‘Someone / plays loud, tinny rhinestone. Yearning / and grief rise to climaxes, yearning and grief’ (49). In ‘Hornsby Fountain’ the ‘man from the council’ cleans the statue and plays the civic bells as though he is milking a cow, ‘one squirt at a time’, and ‘transporting’ the audience of ‘proud ratepayers’ (41).
In the second section of the book, ‘Minims’, Langford returns to the form of the aphorism to revisit a number of key themes: ‘We prefer the songs of loss / to be sung / by the glamourous and available’ (75); or, ‘Janis: / whose suffering was big enough / for the new amplified instruments’ (77); or ‘The fugue knows / you’re not so important’ (102). This collaging of observations, asking to be extended in contemplation like the fullness of the minim expanding into the bar, are tight, hard-won jewels of insight; their crafting here in almost haiku-like form, intensifies and shortens the effect – a kind of staccato of observation.
The book’s third movement, a series of essays, has a different kind of gravitas. Here, in the different linguistic terrain of prose, Langford continues to explore his engagements both with specific composers, the performance of music itself and the ‘sisters’ of poetry and music (117). Reading a little like a series of notes written over a long period of immersion in music and its attendant ideas, these writings articulate the ideas that arise implicitly in the poems themselves; they are a linking together of philosophical musings and judgements, for example ‘Brahms understood … that Beethoven had failed to summon the eternal, that the project was dead’ (119), or ‘In our urban spaces, our most characteristic use for music is as soundtrack: we play narrative-momentum music, on the nominal theme of love’ (137). Whether this section functions as an entirely successful juxtaposition of parts – poems, aphorism, note-like essays – or is redundant in its repetition of somewhat unstructured ideas, it does suggest a serious-minded effort to bring our attention to the interplay of poetry and music, where ‘[r]ather than being protagonists in a migratory narrative, one might think of them [poetry and music] as participants in a dance’ (117).
This is a book of philosophy and poetry which asks intellectual as well as aesthetic questions about what art does and how we respond to it. The linked impulses to create both poetry and music are explored together with the complex business of being the receiver of art forms which ‘dance’ at the edges of what is definable and what is not.
Rose Lucas is a Melbourne poet and academic at Victoria University. Her first collection, Even in the Dark (UWAP 2013) won the Mary Gilmore Award; her most recent collection is Unexpected Clearing (UWAP 2016).