ROBERT ASHLEY & PAUL DEMARINIS
In Sara, Mencken, Christ, and Beethoven There Were Men and Women
John Barton Wolgamot, text
Paul DeMarinis, electronics design
Robert Ashley, voice
Notes to the setting for voice, Moog Synthesizer and control electronics by Robert Ashley and Paul DeMarinis, January, 1973.
Text by John Barton Wolgamot (printed privately in 1944), a poem of 128 stanzas, each stanza the same sentence with four variables, three of which are names or name groups or name constructions, the fourth the adverb of the active verb. To my mind one of the most unusual and beautiful sentences in English.
“In its very truly great manners of Ludwig van Beethoven very heroically the very cruelly ancestral death of Sara Powell Haardt had very ironically come amongst his very really grand men and women to Rafael Sabatini, George Ade, Margaret Storm Jameson, Ford Madox Heuffer, Jean-Jacques Bernard, Louis Bromfield, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche and Helen Brown Norden very titanically.”
The permutations of the four variables over the 128 stanzas give the poem a clear musical form (suggesting both fugue and sonata), binding together groups of names and adverbs into structural “themes” that have obvious counterparts in classical western music. Fourteen names (seven each men and women) appear in various number hierarchies throughout the poem. These I understand to be the heroes and heroines of the story. Other names are repeated to form secondary themes. And finally there are hundreds of names that occur only once (all of the great names of Western culture since the Greek philosophers, with the list becoming more comprehensive and enigmatic as it includes the American literary and musical culture of the early 20th century), whose poetic function is accountable to the very syllable.
The plan for the musical setting of the poem allows for the possibility of any number of densities of events that follow the stanza structure of the poem synchronously, and includes instrumental accompaniment, vocal embellishments and elaboration of the physical environment in any of the sensory modes.
In this realization the sounds of the voice are analyzed by means of peak-filtering (resolution to the single frequency) to plot the rate of occurrence of seven different sound components (plosive attacks, fundamental frequencies, and five harmonics); the products of the filter-analysis are converted to digital information that guides the synthesizer in synchronization with the reading of the poem. The seven tracks of synthesizer activity are mixed together with the voice and distributed over a four-channel matrix; the four-channel product is remixed to stereo for this recording.
—Robert Ashley, 1973
Recorded at the Center for Contemporary Music, Mills College, 1973
Because Keith Waldrop introduced me to In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women, and because Keith and John Barton Wolgamot are in many mysterious ways inseparable in my imagination, I should start these remarks with a few additions to or commentaries on Keith’s story.
I have to start with anecdotes, putting my analysis of the work at the end, because my analysis of the work is inadequate. And because I must leave the analysis open-ended, in case some future cryptographer comes up with the answer I could never find.
Where Keith says that Wolgamot said that he “had had both books destroyed,” I distinctly remember that Wolgamot said he had sold (or somehow got rid of) twelve copies of the first book and two copies of the second. (As one of the many, many bizarre events surrounding my relationship to Wolgamot and his book, I met a man some ten years later who claimed that he had bought and still had a copy of the book I had used in the recording. He was a music-business person, who knew of my work.) I never saw his copy, but I had no reason not to believe him, even though we were in the middle of a martini lunch at the time. He must have bought one of the two of those that Mr. Smith was selling in his shop in Greenwich Village at the time.
Going backwards a bit, Wolgamot at some point in our relationship told me that he had had the “inspiration” for the book while standing in his mother’s bedroom and that he had immediately jotted down “the plan” on a scrap of paper while standing at his mother’s chest of drawers—the plan that took up the rest of his life. I should suppose this was the plan for the names, but it might have been the plan for the great sentence that, as Keith remembers, took him ten years to write.
Keith says that Wolgamot seemed to be in his sixties when the three of us met at the Little Carnegie Cinema. This must be right, considering the reality of his job and all. But I must add that the more times I met with Wolgamot over the next three or four years, the more difficult an estimation of his age became for me. He was a deeply mysterious man. Like no man I have ever known. Almost “unreal.” Almost ageless, although old. And so when I tried to do the calculations of the age and the “inspiration,” I came up with the “inspiration” coming to him in his mid teens. His mother’s bedroom, remember.
After our first meeting I visited Wolgamot two or three times in his tiny office at the Little Carnegie Cinema, always with specific questions about the structure of the book. It seemed inappropriate to take a tape recorder, so I asked the questions and then tried to take notes. But I always failed to bring home anything that made any sense.
Wolgamot had about him not a trace of evasiveness. In fact, he seemed eager to explain. The problem was that I never understood what he had said or what he was talking about. It was as though I had asked Einstein about time or space. We inhabited different universes.
Of course, the obvious reason for my problem is that the book is so immensely complicated structurally, and it probably never occurred to him, nor could he have done it, to begin from the beginning. (Since then I have had meetings with students who want information about music and who know not one thing about music, and in those situations there is no beginning to begin from. There is just vast ignorance on the one part and a sense of impossibility on the other. I was the student. I was vastly ignorant. Wolgamot had never taught, so he had none of the diplomatic tricks to explain that what was going on was impossible.)
Finally, I got up the courage to invite him to dinner at the loft that Mimi Johnson and I shared. The loft was in “early artists’ style”—that is, with very little heat and almost nothing of anything else. He arrived stunningly, as if the most successful man on Wall Street: a beautiful and perfectly fitting, fine wool suit, dazzling patent leather shoes, white silk scarf and a flawless, dark cashmere coat. (I knew by this time that he lived in a single-room “residential” hotel on far upper-Broadway in Manhattan. Beyond the pale. In a suburban frame of mind you wouldn’t go there.) This was the first of the mysteries.
Wolgamot was a ladies’ man. In this matter, age is meaningless. He was much more interested in Mimi than he was in me. They both came from central Illinois, a very special place, unknowable to outsiders. He obviously enjoyed the macaroni and cheese and succotash combination, probably followed by apple pie. (I forget.) I don’t have notes from that night. I was in a state of disbelief. The disciple (me) was simply an aside. Wolgamot was interested in Mimi.
This was the first of four or five dinners at our loft. Always the same mystery, the impeccable dress, the total indifference to our dour situation, the flattering appreciation of the meal (Mimi is a very good cook, but the kitchen left something to be desired), the generous and confident talk, the deepening mystery of his age—he seemed always to become a younger man, as if at the power of his creativity.
On each occasion I would have prepared a list of questions about the book. Every question was answered directly and without impatience. I wrote as fast as I could. When he had left Mimi and I would discuss the answers, each of us remembering different details. Then I would look at my notes and realize again that I had nothing.
This was, of course, a few years after I had spent a year analyzing the book in the only way I knew how—as if it were a piece of music or as if it were a poem. So, I had a lot of questions. But even now, I have no answers. Just notes that I don’t understand, or in some cases ideas that are not confirmed in my analysis. More of this later.
Then, he invited us to dinner—at The Russian Tea Room. (For readers not familiar with New York I should say that The Russian Tea Room, was then—and maybe still is—the place to be, at least for artists and musicians. Corporate ambition has since made eating fancy in New York something like a part of the national budget, but I think the Tea Room is still going strong.) We were seated in the central, red-leather banquette. A few steps down below, the main floor was jammed with tables filled with obvious celebrities, some known and most unknown to me. (On a trip to the men’s’ room I had to slide by a world-famous novelist, wildly engaged in some deal, whose chair was banged every time the men’s room door opened. He probably thought himself lucky to be there. The Russian Tea Room.)
We were treated like royalty. At the end of the meal, when I expected the check to come, I naively offered to contribute something. But no. At some secret signal the waiter appeared with our coats and we were royally escorted to the door. (The check had never come.) Outside we walked to the corner and waited for the bus, which was to take Wolgamot to his hotel. Mimi and I took the subway home.
That was the last time I saw Wolgamot. I phoned a few more times to meet him again, but his excuse was always that now he was again fully engaged in the book, and because he had only one day off from work he was simply too pressed for time.
In one of those conversations, which were friendly, even jovial, he told me how happy he was to have found names to replace the two names that had bothered him in the version of the book I have. I think he said he got the names from the “New York Times”.
He wanted to replace “Camille Pissarro” with “Peter Cornelius” and he wanted to replace “Thespis” with “Ruth Page.”
I need to elaborate somewhat on Keith’s story about the woman in Los Angeles. She said, actually, after the concert, that she had been ironing when she heard Wolgamot’s name in a public-service announcement on the radio. She called the station to find out about the concert, and that is how we met. Her name is Joyce Brenner. (I am not sure that this is right for me to tell, but names are what it’s all about.)
She said that she had called Wolgamot that day to tell him about the concert and that he seemed happy that I was working on the book. But we didn’t have much time to talk, so I made a trip to Los Angeles a few weeks later to have lunch with her, to find out more.
She said that when she was a teenager in New York she had had to go, after school, to the lunchroom in the hotel where she lived with her parents, to wait for her parents to return from work. In the lunch room at the same time there was always this (middle-aged) man, who, she learned when they became friends, had just returned from his day at the New York Public Library. They became friends. (As unlikely as this story seems, I think Wolgamot had to tell somebody.) Gradually she came to understand what he was doing at the library. He tried to explain. Then he, in turn, had to go to work (probably at the Little Carnegie; I got the idea somewhere in our conversations that he and Walter Reade, the owner of the movie theater, were friends and that he had worked at the Little Carnegie a long time.)
She described to me a folder of pages of names that he worked with. She got the vague idea that he was working on an enormous project, but that was all she understood. Somehow the way she told this to me was a premonition of the way I would feel when he talked to me. She described him with great affection. He was generous with his time and ideas, even though the ideas were impossible to understand. He was kind and patient, but obsessed. (What a blessing for a young person! They were still in contact thirty years later.)
His obsession is important. Wolgamot told Mimi and me that his “inspiration” (for what?) came during a concert at Damrosch Park. (Damrosch Park is in New York City, so obviously Wolgamot was in New York well before the publication of the first version of the book in 1941. The chronology of these anecdotes is impossible to reconcile.) A New York orchestra was playing Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony in an outdoor summer concert. While the symphony was being played Wolgamot “saw” the image of Beethoven (was this the familiar torso image?) in an astral light above the orchestra. They didn’t have light-shows in those days. This was Wolgamot’s vision.
For those of you who have not read the lives of the poets, this is the time to laugh. I would caution you against that. Things are bad enough in the world of the imagination as it is.
For Wolgamot this vision was a reality that sustained him. In some way it “caused” one of the great art works of the twentieth century.
Keith’s two “harebrained” claims both seem right to me. The first, that the book I had and the earlier version that Keith has are part of a trilogy, was, in some way, confirmed by the fact that Wolgamot told me, in so many words (I don’t have them written down), that the “book” was, essentially, the title page! After an elaborate explanation of the physical lay-out of the book (the fact that conceptually you could look “through” the book, as though through a group of 128 transparencies, and that the lines of each page would fall exactly upon the lines of all of the others and that the names would be somehow “interleaved” to give the book yet another, deeper meaning), Wolgamot said that one should consider the title page to be “the body” of the book, and that the 128 pages of names should be considered as “the blood flowing through the body.”
Another confirmation of the “trilogy” idea is that, when I was named in Wolgamot’s will as his “publisher” and the will said that I was to receive all of the “plates” for the printing of the book as he had explained his intentions to me (I expected, with dread, that I would get boxes of lead plates—and that my life would be ruined), I got simply a title-plate, Beacons of Ancestorship, with the subtitle, “A Symphonic Study of the Rejuvenation in the Grain.”
Keith is right. This is the perfect trilogy: In Sara Haardt Were Men and Women; In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women; Beacons of Ancestorship, A Symphonic Study of the Rejuvenation in the Grain. When I become a millionaire and can publish all three books exactly according to Wolgamot’s dream, the reader will be able to read the three books, in order, and find a different meaning in each. And find the thrill of “A Symphonic Study of the Rejuvenation in the Grain.”
Keith’s other theory, “that while Sara was Mencken’s on earth, she was Wolgamot’s in eternity” was confirmed in not quite the same words by Wolgamot to me. I have only yet to decide whether the book is a eulogy or an amazing love letter. I am inclined toward the latter interpretation, since the book was “inspired” while Sara was still alive.
We can hardly understand today the depth of a commitment to such a project. It makes Wolgamot seem a mad man. Wolgamot was not a mad man. He was one of the sanest and most visionary persons I have ever met. But he lived and worked during a time and in a place where such a commitment was the only possible expression of his genius. All over America, before we became homogenized by the media (and by the ability to travel!), people lived in loneliness and dreams. This was a new people. And especially in the vast (endless) mid-west, where the European-Americans were cut off from their roots, a “civilization”—that is, a collection of memories that make sense of the present—had to be invented.
I have seen this invention in many forms, and indeed most of the forms were a form of madness: the “collectors.” (Example 1: A tiny town in Wisconsin where my car broke down and I spent a few hours in the “museum”—admission 25 cents. A huge shed, probably formerly a commercial chicken coop, filled with hand-made boxes about 18 inches in each dimension, with a glass front, stacked six feet high, each box containing every kind of thing the collector had collected in his life—matchbook folders, safety pins, pieces of broken glass, breathtaking banalities—each item elaborately labeled and dated. Hundreds of boxes. A history of civilization. Example 2: A woman with a house full of cheap ceramic carnival prizes—Mickey Mouse, vases, dinosaurs, etceteras, which were put out on the lawn every morning in a new display, a new configuration, and taken in every night and cleaned and polished.) These museums existed in the hundreds. Everybody could tell me about their favorite one. I thought for a moment that I should specialize in this history of America, and make a museum of museums. But of course I couldn’t. I think they are all gone now. Still we do not have a civilization, but the museums of memories are gone.
At this point I would recommend Keith Waldrop’s novel, Light While There is Light (Sun and Moon Press, Los Angeles, 1993.) It is a great book. It is about the desperate mid-west of the first half of this century. It explains things that you didn’t know needed explanation to know who you are. Proust in the mid-west of America.
The difference between Beacons of Ancestorship and the “museums” is that Wolgamot was not driven to madness by loneliness and that he was a genius. But the impulse is the same. He had to create a civilization that immortalized his love for Sara. And he had to do it beginning in Danville, Illinois.
Although Wolgamot was well-educated (two years at Notre Dame followed by two years at Princeton—without graduating, I think) I never got the impression that he understood how the form of his work related to traditional forms in music, for instance, the “Eroica.” (People educated in music almost invariably resort to some sort of musical jargon to explain an idea. I never heard this from Wolgamot.) I suspect he knew nothing about musical form, except in the general sense of form-titles and section-titles: “symphony”, “scherzo”, etceteras. I suspect he knew nothing, and cared nothing, about modernism in writing. I think that he invented what had to be invented and that, because he was a genius, he made something that was perfect and that is without a precedent.
One more anecdote. When I had finished studying the book for many months and when I had decided to “propose” an opera-for-television based on the book that, in honor of the book, would be as unlikely to be produced as the book had been unlikely to be published, I asked my friend, Paul DeMarinis, a wonderful composer and a brilliant electronic designer to collaborate with me on a “pilot-project” tape recording that would present the text of In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women in a manner that could be produced only on television—that is, with the speed of television editing and with scene settings and scene changes that could only be accomplished electronically. I explained the form of the text as best I could to Paul—especially the idea that the form of the text is governed by the reappearance throughout of seven pairs of names, seven women and seven men (Paul remarked that 128 pages is 2 to the seventh power), and that the text seemed to me to represent a “performable” musical composition—and Paul designed a set of synthesizer configurations that represented the comings and goings of these special names in the text.
The technical plan was that the singing of the text (pre-recorded and edited) would be on one track of an eight-track tape, and that Paul and I would “perform” (insert) the special synthesizer configurations as any one of the seven pairs of names appeared, and that each of these seven pairs would be on a separate track of the tape. Thus, we would make a rudimentary eight-track tape that later would be subjected to an elaborate mixing and processing plan in order to finish a stereo “master.” This work took weeks of our time in the studio.
We finished the rudimentary tape on a Thursday night, probably very late. The next day I had an afternoon seminar to teach (at the Center for Contemporary Music, Mills College.) Having nothing else to talk about I decided to come to the studio in the morning and make a crude, “flat” mix of the eight tracks to a stereo tape; that is, all of the tracks were set at the same level, with no processing, no mixing, none of the subtleties of a finished product that Paul and I had planned.
On Saturday I was supposed to leave for a couple of weeks to give some concerts. I didn’t own a good suitcase, so I asked a friend at the studio if I could borrow a suitcase for the tour.
Irrationally (I’m not sure now whether this is the word), I decided after the seminar to take home all of the work that Paul and I had done over the past weeks—to “safeguard” the tapes; they were so precious to me. It took me at least two trips from the studio to my car to take away the dozens of master tapes we had accumulated.
I drove to my friend’s house to pick up the suitcase. By this time it was totally dark. My friend lived on one of the back streets in the Berkeley “flats.” The streetlights, such as they were, were a long way apart. My car was in almost total darkness.
I didn’t lock the car. Why should I? (But I remember some strange feeling in that decision even now.) The tapes were in the back seat of a two-door car, virtually out of sight.
I went to my friend’s door to get the suitcase. I declined a drink and a chat. I couldn’t have been in his house more than five minutes—the time it took him to dig the suitcase out of a closet.
When I returned to the car, the tapes were gone. I was crazed. I drove around the blocks madly. It would have taken four people to carry away the tapes in hand. I looked in every corner trash basket. Who would want these used tapes? How could this be? It made no sense. But they were gone.
I was broken-hearted and totally unnerved by the impossible circumstances. Weeks of work were gone. I knew it would never be done again.
I thought everything was lost. I thought there was some curse on me that was a warning about my presumption in taking on the Wolgamot project. I was not in a good frame of mind.
When I returned from the concert tour I found the crude, Friday morning mix still sitting on the shelf of the mixing console. (So much for safe-guarding.) So this CD is that tape, that has since been processed many times in the newest digital programs to clean it up.
My apologies to Paul DeMarinis. My presumption undid us.
First, a note about this booklet packaged with the compact disc.
Because of the proportions of the original book, which is not square, it is not possible to reproduce the book itself. (Or rather, it is hopelessly impractical, considering the way CD packages are displayed in stores.) So I will simply describe the book as an object, because the book as an object was important to John Barton Wolgamot.
The book is 73/4 inches wide, 43/4 inches high, with a spine 13/16 inches deep. The pages are 73/8 inches wide, by 41/2 inches high. The book comprises the title page (“the body”) followed by 128 pages of text (“the blood.”) There are no extra pages: e.g., copyright page, inscription page, extra pages at the end.
On the title page the first line of the title is 11/16 inches from the top. John Barton Wolgamot’s name, as publisher, is 9/16 inch from the bottom. The publication date (1944) is 3/16 inch from the bottom. These are all in bold.
On the lower half of the title page is the author’s name, “By John Barton Wolgamot”, 11/2 inches from the bottom.
Everything on the title page is centered.
The first line of the text itself is 115/16 inches from the top. The last line of the text on the longest page (page 128) is 3/4 inch from the bottom.
On the title page, the title, “IN SARA, ..., begins 7/8 inch from the left margin (the binding.) The text itself is justified at 3/4 inch from the left margin (the binding.)
One meaning of these measurements (if anybody cares to draw them out) is that, with the exception of the author’s name, nothing on the title page intrudes upon the space allotted to the text. Thus, with the exception of the author’s name, the title page and text can be imagined as “the body” containing 128 pages of “the blood.” I would think that Wolgamot must have regretted the position of the author’s name, but probably couldn’t figure out anywhere else to put it. (Or maybe, if one could “see through” the 128 pages, it is in exactly the right place.)
Another feature of the CD booklet that differs from the book-as-object is that it was impractical to try to replicate the relative line lengths of the text of the book. It was possible to find a font that resembled the book font, but on every page of the book there is an elaborate kerning (that is, a spacing between letters) that makes the first line longer than or equal to the length of any other line on the page of the text and gives a special spacing to the names. Of course, that kerning could be done on a computer (and in fact, is done in the CD booklet to make the first line the longest), but to match the spacing of the text, which I think would be a major aesthetic consideration for Wolgamot, if we were publishing the book-as-object, would be labor and cost intensive beyond our means.
Finally, the text-as-object is 128 pages, single sided (right side), which would make the CD booklet too large to be packaged. It seemed the most important decision was to give the listener the text, whatever compromises had to be made to accomplish this.
The pages of the book-as-object are unnumbered, so they are unnumbered in the CD booklet. In the CD booklet the pages read top to bottom and left to right page.
So, Wolgamot’s plan for the book-as-object are somewhat obscured by the very practical considerations of giving the CD listener the text.
But every other aspect of the text, in particular the line breaks, is retained. I believe the “coding” of the book—the choice of names, the choice of adverbs, the line breaks—is clear in the CD booklet.
The text could be described as a poem of 128 stanzas, each stanza the same sentence with four variables, three of which are names or name groups or name constructions; the fourth is the adverb of the active verb. To my mind one of the most unusual and most wonderful (and memory-defying) sentences in English. Wolgamot was being modest, facetious, self-deprecating, whatever, when he said to Keith, “It’s harder than you think to write a sentence that doesn’t say anything.“ The whatever may have included something even sarcastic to a well-tuned ear. I often felt I was in the presence of this kind of intelligence.
Keith says the text is prose. I am not sure I agree with this. I think it is neither prose nor poetry. I believe, from my discussions with Wolgamot, that he regarded each page as a “scene”—as if in a “film storyboard” or as if a “picture” (perhaps a photograph)—representing a grouping of persons, who had “something in common” (the commonness based on the sounds of the names, the “meaning” of the names—what those persons did—and the visual structure of the scene based on the lay-out of the words on the page.)
I will quote the first page (with computer kerning) to illustrate the four variables, underlining those four variables to be discussed below.
In its very truly great manners of Ludwig van Beethoven very he-
roically the very cruelly ancestral death of Sara Powell Haardt
had very ironically come amongst his very really great men and
women to Rafael Sabatini, George Ade, Margaret Storm Jameson,
Ford Madox Hueffer, Jean-Jacques Bernard, Louis Bromfield, Frie-
drich Wilhelm Nietzsche and Helen Brown Norden very titanically.
1) Ludwig van Beethoven (name)
2) cruelly ancestral death of Sara Powell Haardt (name construction)
3) ironically (adverb)
4) Rafael Sabatini ... and Helen Brown Norden (name group)
These four elements change in successive stanzas in obviously intentional patterns to give form to the whole. Most often the single name is one of the seven pairs of names mentioned above (but not always.) The name-construction is almost always “dramatic” (as in the example), suggesting a relationship among the characters or a “plot.” The adverb is almost always equally dramatic (sometimes shocking) and to the same purpose. But, with the exception that certain adverbs—particularly “ironically”—recur frequently, one has the sense that the adverb is chosen for its sound value as well as for its meaning. In the name groups one finds most of the great names of Western culture, with the list becoming more illusive and enigmatic as it comes to include the American literary (and musical) culture of the early 20th century. This set of patterns—the rotation of the four elements—is what needs to be “decoded” in order to understand the work.
The fourteen key names of the “plot”—seven men and seven women—I have not been able to understand, except that Wolgamot seems to “identify with” or be interchangeable with the other six men. So one might assume that a similar relationship exists for Sara Powell Haardt and the other six women.
John Barton Wolgamot Sara Powell Haardt
Henry Louis Mencken Helen Brown Norden
Ludwig van Beethoven Willa Sibert Cather
Jesus Christ Berenice Anne Bonner
William Shakespeare Ruth Maxine Martin
Ringgold Wilmer Lardner Frances Gertrude Fiedler
Lyof Nikolayevitch Tolstoy Gertrude Allain Mary McBrady
I have listed these names in no particular order or pairing. but simply as they “appear” to be important in their occurrence.
There are a few other names that appear more than once, but do not seem to me to be of first importance in the structure of the book. (Or, at least, I cannot discover their importance.)
I intend to finish this set of clues to an analysis by describing two pages of the text that Wolgamot described to me. But first I should make a few remarks about what appear to be these “key-names.”
All of the “key-names”—in fact, almost all of the names in the text—appear in most biographical dictionaries, with the exception of the last four names in the list of women. I have assumed, on no evidence, that these women were friends of Wolgamot, who represented in some way the idea of the book or, personally, played a part in the plot.
With regard to Wolgamot’s fear of being associated with the political “left”, as mentioned in Keith’s essay, Helen Brown Norden is almost certainly a pseudonym for Helen Lawrenson (1904-1982), who was an editor of “Vanity Fair”, who was a part of the early phase of the women’s liberation movement and who was married to a Jack Lawrenson—a union organizer in the 1930’s (and who, curiously, comes down in family to Abbie Hoffman. What can one say?)
The biographical dictionary on the Internet says that Sara Powell Haardt was committed to the earliest phase of the women’s liberation movement.
Any biographical information on Berenice Anne Bonner, Ruth Maxine Martin, Frances Gertrude Fiedler and Gertrude Allain Mary McBrady could not be found.
(In re-studying this analysis and after recent phone calls to members of the Wolgamot family I have come to believe that Frances Gertrude Fiedler was the name of Wolgamot’s wife, from whom he was divorced. Wolgamot himself told me that Jack Edward Swift, who appears on the 64th page of the text (that is, on the last page of the “second movement” and exactly at the middle of the text, was Wolgamot’s former wife’s second husband.)
(This all sounds like small-town gossip of the worst sort, but it has to be said, if someone is to decipher how these names fit into the plan of the text—the “plot.”)
Wolgamot described the construction of the page that begins with George Meredith and that contains the names Paul Gauguin, Margaret Kennedy, Oland Russell, Harley Granville-Barker, Pieter Breughel, Benedetto Croce and William Somerset Maugham (this is the 60th page of the text) as follows—with many omissions, because I could not keep up: “Somerset has both summer and set as in sun-set, and Maugham sounds like the name of a South Pacific Island, and Maugham wrote a biography of Gauguin, which name has both “go” and “again” in it, and Oland could be ‘Oh, land”, a sailor’s cry, and Granville sounds French for a big city, which Gauguin left to go to the South Pacific ... etceteras.” I couldn’t keep track of how the other names worked.
This kind of quotation makes Wolgamot sound half-crazed, but, in fact, it made sense when he told it, because it was a combination of sounds and meanings that conjured up the image of an island in the South Pacific as a kind of paradise, as if a scene from a movie. What this had to do with Wolgamot’s love of Sara Powell Haardt I wouldn’t dare guess. But it was a beautiful and vivid scene as he told it.
Wolgamot said the form (of the sentence and key names?) came with the “Shakespeare” page (wherever that is) and that all of the pages are based on that form, except for the “Hemingway” page (which is five pages from the end, and which, curiously, has Hemingway buried in the middle of the name-group), which he said “just worked out better the way it is.”
As he explained the “Hemingway “ page, which has John Keats just before Ernest Hemingway, he said Ernest had in it “Urn”, as in “Ode to a Grecian Urn” and that it also had in it “her nest hemming away.” I don’t know what this means, but it has the same sound and meaning structure as the Maugham page.
I think these are examples of what Wolgamot meant when he said to Keith that a certain combination of names caused a “spark.”
Imagine doing this for 128 pages and hundreds and hundreds of names. No wonder the book took him twenty years to write. No wonder that Mencken, who was a literary powerhouse in his time (but seems more than boring now) thought that Wolgamot was crazy. Wolgamot was clearly playing to immortality for himself and his beloved Sara.
A thorough musical analysis demands that one can account for every aspect of every note. A thorough analysis of Wolgamot’s work demands the same. Obviously, I failed. So, I am simply passing on what little I learned in spending a few hours with Wolgamot and what little I learned in my attempt at analysis.
I insist that such an analysis is important, because it will teach us the way a great organizing mind works. I am certain that we learn in this way.
Wolgamot said that the text was in four movements of 32 pages each, and this in a way is confirmed by the pairing of key-names on pages 32, 64, 96 and 128. He gave me the names of the four characters who are central to the four movements: (I) Sara; (II) Mencken; (III) Christ; (IV) Beethoven. (Note that this is the order of the names in the title of the text that I worked with.)
He said that Section IV (Beethoven) had the form of a “finale” based on a fugue or scherzo. I haven’t been able to confirm this, except that there are probably more names in the last 32 pages than in the previous three sections. Also, note that there are 18 names on the final page and there are 18 letters in Beethoven’s name. Is this a coincidence?
Wolgamot said that the structure of the text comes from the last name in the name groups and that the text can be analyzed from that. I have not found that to be true. Maybe I got this information wrong. Maybe he meant the last name of the page.
I can understand vaguely why Wolgamot would change “Camille Pissarro” to Peter Cornelius, although the syllable count is different (which might rule out syllable count as a factor in analysis.) As to the change of “Thespis” to Ruth Page, I can only diagram what Wolgamot told me on the phone: Thespis = Ruth Page.
I have finished telling what Wolgamot told me—or as much as I could understand.
Before I met Wolgamot, and after months of various kinds of analysis, I had decided that the text represented a three-part “sonata” form, with an “exposition” (pages 1–42) embodying two or three “themes”; a “development” section (pages 43–85), expressing the notion of the recurrence of “themes” as a formal device (for instance, on page 82 of the text, all of the names in the name-group are African-American writers—this could hardly be an accident); and a “recapitulation” pages 86–128), with the appearance of the names of Russian writers from before and after the 1917 revolution and with the adverbs becoming (in some undecipherable pattern) less pleasant or less abstract. There are other aspects of my analysis that seemed to confirm this musical form, but that are too complicated to explain here.
This three-part form (exposition, development, recapitulation) is common (almost standard) in the first movement of 18th and 19th century symphonies. I thought I had the text figured out to a degree.
Obviously, my analysis was not confirmed when Wolgamot explained the text to me. (And even now I cannot find this three-part form in what Wolgamot told me was the “first movement.”) But there is something peculiarly (accidentally?) meaningful in it for me. Do “forms” really exist in our imagination—when we begin to organize things—forms that govern our imagination in ways we are unaware of?
I will never understand the Wolgamot text, because it is too complicated, because it is too personal, because I have not time (a life-time) to give to the analysis, because I am not smart enough to have seen the organization on first sight. It will remain a mystery to me until some genius of cryptography can make sense of every word.
I do know that for Wolgamot there was a reason, a logic, for the choice of every name, for the grouping of those names and for the choice of every adverb.
I believe that the absolute formality of the text touches in us a fact that is as deep as our humanity: the fact is that everything in our speech and in our thinking is elaborately organized, even before we get to it. To have an idea is to have a thought about how to refine that organized material, to make it more beautiful.
Copyright © 1973, 2002 Robert Ashley, Visibility Music Publishers (BMI)
© P 2002 Lovely Music, Ltd.
LCD 4921 [D][D][D]