16 / 11 / 02 – 15 / 12 / 02
Exhibition / Films / Talks / Performance
My Favorite, Favorite Things
Mark Rakatansky (USA)
Sound Project Assistance:
Andrew Parsegian, Project Manager; Sound Engineer, "MC" and “Dual / Duel / Duet”
Adam Phillips, Sound Engineer, "Duet Anticipated"
Liner Notes for "My Favorite, Favorite Things" audio project, Mark Rakatansky
haus.0 script:"Spatial Narratives" (1991) Mark Rakatansky
Tied up, Fly with, Melt into:
John Coltrane’s Sample and Scratch (Part 1)
Mark Rakatansky (2002)
Lots of people imagine wrongly that 'My Favorite Things' is one of my compositions; I would have loved to have written it but it's by Rogers and Hammerstein. … 'Favorite Things' is my favorite piece of all those I have recorded. … This waltz is fantastic: when you play it slowly, it has an element of gospel that’s not at all displeasing; when you play it quickly, it possesses other undeniable qualities. It's very interesting to discover a terrain that renews itself according to the impulse that you give it.
— John Coltrane interviewed by FranÁois Postif in Jazz Hot, January 1962
MARLOW:In fact, now that I look at you properly, I can see what you are.
NURSE MILLS: Oh. Can you indeed.
MARLOW: You are the girl in all those songs. Dee dum.
NURSE MILLS: What songs?
MARLOW: The songs. The songs. The bloody, bloody songs.
NURSE MILLS: I wish I knew what you were talking about —
MARLOW: The songs you hear coming up the stair.
NURSE MILLS: Sorry?
MARLOW: When you’re a child. When you’re supposed to be asleep. Those songs.
— Dennis Potter, The Singing Detective, 1986.
I have for so long utilized Coltrane’s versions of the Roger’s and Hammerstein II’s song “My Favorite Things” as a kind of guide, one of many, for the operations of my own architecture and art and writing, have so long considered his various versions, or rather his various versionings, not as a model but as a modeling — as Godard says: “We need to show that there’s no model; there’s only modeling.” My objects and my thoughts have thus for so long been tied up with this work, that when Fareed Armaly suggested that I construct a sound piece based on “My Favorite Things” for his haus.0 series at the Künstlerhaus it seemed so fundamental to me that I persisted with numerous nos until his persistence persuaded me to yes.
Tied Up With
“Brown paper packages tied up with strings / These are a few of my favorite things”
Well, it’s a tune to be tied up with, to be entangled with, or so it seems at least from Coltrane’s own account, which may explain why he himself was so tied up with it, playing it year after year, by all accounts hundreds of times between the original recording in 1960 to his last live recording three months before his death in 1967. Each version is different of course, from the original 13 minutes to the longest one of 59 minutes in Tokyo in 1966, and of course I have favorite moments in all of them.
Coltrane obviously favored that song, loved that song, as he himself says in the interview I quote above, but he (or you) could just as well have hated it — as Dennis Potter says:
“ … it’s sometimes the ones I hate the most that give me the most traffic because I become aware of saying to myself, ‘Why the hell is it in my head then?’ … The purpose is … to re-see, re-hear what may be an extraordinarily banal tune and nonsensical lyric. In other words, to give the song the meaning of the emotional and physical surround out of which you are made to re-hear it.”
Those bloody, bloody songs, as Marlow says in the Singing Detective
Either way, it’s what you’re tied up with, either way it’s about entanglements, about whether you choose to enact your entanglements.
What I have been imagining is this: John Coltrane as the first hip-hopper, as the first to sample and scratch lyrical sonics, like hip-hop will later on with actual lyrics. Coltrane’s versions are not just simply and slightly swinging versions, not just formulaic jazzed-up versions. The song says I simply remember —“When the dog bites / When the bee stings / When I’m feeling sad / I simply remember my favorite things / And then I don’t feel so bad” — but memory is anything but simple, as Coltrane and hip-hop so vividly demonstrate. Just like hip-hop, it’s a mix of sampled histories, cross-histories, counter-histories. Coltrane is remembering, but not simply. His is a complex counter-history of his entanglements. Coltrane as MC.
Among the (favorite) things that he is in the act of remembering is the melody that is the character that is Mary/Maria: “the girl in the song” to use Dennis Potter’s phrase, who is not Julie Andrews from the film, that’s 1965, long after Coltrane’s first recording in 1960, but Mary Martin from the Broadway production, that’s 1959, the original date. And the scene is not as in the movie, not the forced and frenetic version of Hollywood Maria (Andrews) before all the anxious children at the von Trapp estate, but a duet in the abbey between Broadway Maria (Martin) and the Mother Abbess (played by Patricia Neway). Not a solo governess lesson for anxious children, but an entangled duet between anxious adults, postulant Maria and the Mother Abbess all tied up in various desires and doubts.
Finding that the girl is in the song, finding the desire and doubt, the joy and fear, that already is in the song, well, that can happen, it’s how you listen to it. Here, for example, is another Maria: discovered by the musicologist Helga Thoene (and recently enacted by Christoph Poppen and the Hillard Ensemble in their album Morimur:) Bach’s Ciaccona —the heretofore assumed instrumental section that concludes the Second Partita (in D-Minor) of his Six Solos for Unaccompanied Violin — is a “tombeau”, a musical epitaph, for his wife Maria Barbara after her unexpected death in 1720. Thoene has revealed the choral phrases of death and resurrection, joy (“For this shall we joyful be”) and fear (“In my beloved God I trust in fear and need”) and feeling sad (“Grant us patience in times of sorrow”), doubt (“Where shall I refuge find”) and its corresponding desire (“Command now all my pathways”), that are encoded into the abstract instrumental music, in keeping with Bach’s well-known techniques and play with the encryption of names and numerations within his works. The entanglements between lyric and meter speak to the speaking of entanglements within the lyrics: “Christ lay in death’s bondage” and “From this came, then, death so quick / And seized power over us / Held us in his realm as captives”). Bach encoded this lyrical (choral) material in this Partita, just as he encoded his name and a variety of numerical plays in many of his works, just as Bach went so far as find a way even to encode Maria’s name in “cryptographic form at the opening of the Ciaccona.”
And if it seems odd to evoke death in relation to the supposed cheeriness of "My Favorite Things" then it should be noted that the lyrics for the Sound of Music were the last written by Oscar Hammerstein II, the final versions being written with the knowledge of his own stomach cancer that killed him less than a year after the Broadway opening and almost two months to the day, October 21, 1960, that John Coltrane walked into the Atlantic Recording Studio, 234 W 56, to record his original reversioning, just ten short Manhattan blocks due north from the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 W 46, where The Sound of Music had opened 11 months earlier and was still playing there that day Coltrane recorded his version and would continue to play there for yet another year. Who knows: Mary might even have been singing the (very) moment John was playing into the microphone, just blocks each from the other. Not within earshot, but certainly within eyeshot, right down Broadway. Close yet far, far yet close?
Finding the lyrics in the music, the lyrics entangled in Coltrane’s music, is not limited in Coltrane’s work to his interpretations of popular songs: Lewis Porter has rigorously demonstrated how Psalm, the concluding section of Coltrane’s own “abstract” composition A Love Supreme is a nearly word for word, syllable for syllable, recitation of Coltrane’s “poem,” that sentimental prayer that was included in the liner notes of the album, filled with phrases of joy (“His way is so lovely” ) and fear (“Help us resolve our fears and weaknesses”), doubt (“No road is an easy one”) and its corresponding desire (“But they all lead back to God”). Coltrane’s lyrics are, of course, no more or less mawkishly sentimental in conventional and hackneyed religious phrasing than Bach’s chorals or Hammerstein’s Sound of Music lyrics. And while Coltrane, unlike Bach, is not generally known to encode lyrical materials in his abstract sounds, Coltrane made this technique and play quite clear in another interview in the French journal Jazz Hot three years after the interview quoted above. Coltrane was then asked about this Love Supreme poem and about whether the text aids “in understanding the music.” He replied: “This is the longest that I ever wrote but certain pieces of the album Crescent are also poems, like ‘Wise One,’ ‘Lonnie’s Lament,’ ‘The Drum Thing.’ I sometimes proceed in this manner because it’s a good approach to musical composition. I am also interested in languages, in architecture.”
This is among the ways of finding the lyrical figuration within the abstract instrumentation, the abstract structuring within the figural (the lyrical) — it’s a mode of questioning what is form and what is figure and how they are tied up with each other — whether in music or language or architecture — whether you’re writing (or designing) your most abstract composition or trying to figure out what your re-versioning of “My Favorite Things” will be.
Now the question is this:
How do you solve a problem like Maria?
That is the question Rogers and Hammerstein and Martin and Coltrane and I had to be asking ourselves. Even Bach had to.
In the first section of (my reversioning) My Favorite Favorite Things, “Duet Anticipated”, I took what in the original is the alternating of the complete song — Mary sings through all verses first, then Mother Abbess sings through all the verses, then they alternate the first two bars in the final section, then they duet at the very end — and turned it (through many tactical microsnips here and there) into the continuous duet between Maria and the Mother Abbess that was already anticipated in the original. Mary Martin in the original is singing slightly faster than Patricia Neway, so removing the gaps between certain vocalized notes allowed the two voices not so much to totally match up (the recording studio tendency that had to be avoided), but to enact the vocalists’ desire to be matching up in time, which in fact reveals the subtle and not so subtle differences and discrepancies and anticipations, the complex entanglements between the vocalizations and the orchestrations, the entanglements between lyrical desire and doubt.
In the second section of My Favorite Favorite Things, “MC” (as in Mary Coltranized or MC (Master of Ceremonies) Coltrane or Martin and Coltrane), I have Mary sing along with John, considering that it was John singing along with Mary to begin with. The pitch and time of her melody has now been adjusted to (almost but not always) match his melody through countless micro-operations involving lyrical annunciation, phrasing, and tone – in order to enact its own desires and entanglements to be matching up in time, to be entangled in time. I say countless because the decisions and iterations have been beyond count, but the computer can and does count, say, the notes of hers that have been operated on, which as of today count up to one thousand, four hundred and five.
The third section “Dual / Duel / Duet” is an alternate version, an alternate take, of “MC.” Well, all the sections are alternate takes really: transforming and decoding matter by taking alternatives already available within the object, showing what has been altered by showing it is alternating with what was, in an active and animated way. “Duet Anticipated” and “MC” are developed as continuous duets, continuous entanglements — alternate versions made simultaneous — in order to show both the continuity and discontinuity between Martin and Coltrane, Martin and Neway, given that there are moments in “MC” that are beyond the legible range of Mary, too low, too high, just as there are moments in “Duet Anticipated” that are too slow, too fast. “Dual / Duel / Duet” was developed in response to the strict alternating of Maria and the Mother Abbess in the last section of the Broadway original. So now the moments when Mary is dueting with John in “MC” are no longer layered over the Coltrane track. Now when Mary sings John does not play, when John plays Mary does not sing (those are the moments he is out of her range, after all). What results is a more extreme form of disjunction, but it is also — given that Mary has been Coltranized — uncannily continuous. The structure and the operations are in a way more revealed here, but also more concealed, because the reasons for the operations are no longer made evident. In “Dual / Duel / Duet” you hear the transformations of Mary more clearly, you hear just how strange her new vocalizations are — in “MC” you hear the reasons, the motivations, for the transformations (of both Mary and John) more clearly.
What all this constitutes is a retroactive illumination of just how much the girl is in the song, just how continuously (rather than intermittently) faithful Coltrane was to the lyrical material of the original, and just how extraordinary inventive he was with its reinvention. The process used here to make this lyrical material and its distortional encryption audible and evident, it turns out, is not so different than that employed in relation to Bach’s Ciaccona, as described by Thoene: “The choral melodies employed as a cantus firmus can be made audible by prolonging the notes of the violin part with the aid of additional instruments or voices. In order to blend into the musical fabric, the rhythm and meter of the hymns have been freely manipulated. This becomes particularly evident when the chorale quotation has the same pitch sequence as a fugue subject but has been subordinated to its rhythm.”
This dialogue in Bach, between the lyrical and the sonic, made evident by the Poppen/Hillard reversioning, thus now reveals the instrumental version of Ciaccona as a self-dialogue — in the way the best dramatic monologues are really dialogues with others, or rather, the other(s) in your self. Ekkehard Jost has already called attention to the self-dialogue in Coltrane’s music from 1960 through the late work, a ”simulated polyphony, in which a single instrument appears to take on the role of two” (or more, as in Bach). This self-dialogue only increases in Coltrane’s last years:
In almost all of Coltrane’s pieces, there is at once time or another a passage in which he strings together a quick succession of related phrases, two, sometimes three octaves apart. These ”dialogues” … hark back to one of the most traditional elements of jazz, however new and strange it may appear in Coltrane’s music. They are highly compressed logogram call-and-response patterns, such as occur in the earliest forms of religious Afro-American music, or — to go back further yet — in African music. Not least for this reason, they would seem to be symptomatic of free jazz as a whole.
This should explain Coltrane’s gospel comment in the earlier Jazz Hot interview: ”This waltz is fantastic: when you play it slowly, it has an element of gospel that’s not at all displeasing.” And might also explain Jost’s use of the word logogram: a sign or character representing a word. As Coltrane says in the later Jazz Hot interview, this lyrical generator ”is a good approach to musical composition,” like ”in languages, in architecture.”
This self-dialogue between lyric and sonic, sense and structure, or to use Jost’s terms ”emotion and construction,” is a form of comparative double description. As Gregory Bateson said, it doesn’t take one to know one, it takes two to know one. As in binocular vision, which is a lie that tells a deeper truth. Each eye sees the same thing, more or less, but between the more and the less, between that shift and overlap, is the deeper depth of perception. Binoculars, the mechanical ones, are like having another set of eyes, allowing you both close attention and distance from the object of your attention. The way that group of children I met in Nakuru, looking through my binoculars, shaking their heads and clicking their tongues in disbelief and belief, would point first far and then draw that pointing finger back near to themselves. Bringing the there and the here into relation. And even by drawing what’s near even nearer, gives you some distance on it, so you can see it anew, in its familiarity and unfamiliarity.
Like when Coltrane switched from his principal tenor saxophone to the soprano saxophone he plays on My Favorite Things. In the liner notes to the album he notes the distance this gave him: ”It let me take another look at improvisation. It’s like having another hand.”
So unlike human binocular vision, which achieves depth at the cost of resolving difference, aesthetic binocular operations most productively achieves depth by putting into play sameness and difference, not by resolving but by exaggerating samenesses and differences, keeping some distance, keeping two almost resembling conditions apart in order to draw them deeper into relation and depth.
On and off register, on and off the beat.
This is related to Homi Bhabha's concepts, drawn from certain historical resistances to certain colonial authorities, of mimicry, sly civility, hybridity, of the "almost the same, but not quite -,". ". . . a discursive process by which the excess or slippage produced by the ambivalence of mimicry (almost the same, but not quite) does not merely 'rupture' thediscourse, but becomes transformed into an uncertainty which fixes the colonial subject as a partial presence. By partial I mean both 'incomplete' and 'virtual.'" Which is why he says it is necessary to avoid the easy resolution of (cultural) difference, precisely in order to see how they are both separated from and tied up with each other, or as he says, "less than one and double." Less than one because the dominant identity has lost its unified status through the difference revealed by multiple description: not unified because multiplied. But perhaps it would be more precise to say not double. Almost doubled, but not quite. Less than one and not exactly doubled. Less than one and slyly doubled.
Doubled entanglements: brown paper packages are the things that are tied up with strings in the song: from white artist to black artist back to now white artist again: brown paper packages, cream colored ponies, girls in white dresses, silver white winters. Roger’s next musical, the one he wrote both the music and lyrics for, following Hammerstein’s death, was called No Strings Attached, which was about interracial romance, Rogers having already tried his liberal hands before at issues of racism in South Pacific and The Sound of Music.
As for the entanglement of collecting that caused Fareed to suggest my entanglement in this project for the Künstlerhaus: although I get much philological pleasure comparing all the various 28 recorded versions I won’t try to convey that favorite kind of thing here, that would be piling abstraction upon abstraction, not enough registerable distance between the original and the operations for a bi-nocular effect. Here I just pick my favorite favorite: the Newport Jazz Festival, 1963, from the middle period, and for whatever other benefits there are to be had with the increased abstraction of the late versions, the versions become too atomized by the end, and the lyrical bi-nocular tension gets muddy, homogeneous, and lost. Newport was the first live version I heard, long before I began my quest to collect them all. There is a Stuttgart version from the same year, and happy I would have been to have reworked that bit of historical entanglement to the Künstlerhaus, but this bootleg recording is of a lesser quality, the version is less driven, and it’s really not my favorite.
I was only five years old and only thirty-five miles away from the Newport performance, that night of July 17, 1963: Was I outside playing in the late light of July? Was it hot, was it humid that night in Providence, in Newport, in Rhode Island? Was I already asleep? Maybe I was already asleep, or perhaps just drifting off to sleep. Was there music playing then, not coming up the stairs (ours was a modernist house and my room was on the main level) as in Potter’s Singing Detective, but under the door as in Benjamin’s Berlin Chronicle? Whatever music may or may not have been playing that night outside the door and under the door of my bedroom, it wasn’t the music of Coltrane that was playing in our house, we didn’t even have the hi-fi yet, just an older record player for the already then old 78s: Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Talking Union, Six Songs for Democracy, Marlene Dietrich, Gilbert and Sullivan, Gershwin, Jazz at the Philharmonic, Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, — the pop and the Broadway musicals and the rock would come later.