‘Song of the Sycamore’: translating poetry into music

C’est à la fois par la poésie et à travers la poésie, par et à travers la musique, que l’âme entrevoit les splendeurs situées derrière le tombeau. [It is at once by way of poetry and through poetry, as with music, that the soul glimpses splendors from beyond the tomb.]
– Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), Notes Nouvelles sur Edgar Poe III, iv.

What is it that decides whether the creative impulse leads to a poem or a picture, a song or a story? Recent experience has suggested to me that it is not necessarily for oneself to decide. And if we are responding to an existing work of artistic expression, the enigma of origins in relation to the creative act is yet more hidden and mysterious. Perhaps this is in some sense because every creative act is in fact a response – as part of a long, slow dialogue between consciousnesses who never meet, or could never meet – or that it constitutes the reply to a fore-runner. It is more likely that in the final analysis there is no difference between one art form and any other: it is merely a matter of standpoint and perspective.

For some time I have been paying regular visits to the British Museum – and just lately, in particular, to a refurbished gallery in which are exhibited a series of wall paintings from the lost tomb of an ancient Egyptian official known as Nebamun. To some extent these constitute a concrete example of what I am attempting to formulate, in respect of the conceptual problem presently under discussion: the location of the tomb from which the remarkable series of paintings was removed is now unknown. After they were secretly borne away from the west bank of the Nile at Thebes, sometime during the first quarter of the 19th Century, their origin has been lost to time and memory. They are a sequence of disarticulated scenes robbed of their narrative context, but which individually offer snatches of a story told eternally by imperceptible voices, beyond the insulating boundary of the present through the lacunae of the weaker walls of ‘now’. A strong tale comprising vibrant vignettes in silent stasis. And it was as a result of the apparent potency of their message that I wanted to respond to them; I thought that what they seemed to be urging me to do was to write a poem. One particular detail of these wall paintings encouraged me to think in this way. Such moments as become enshrined in something caught sight of, straining the content of a moment beyond its customary capacity, allow the place, the encounter or the vision to permit objectivity and subjectivity to coalesce. I have found – as have many others, since this is not a unique experience – that a phrase heard or read, a location suddenly approached via an unexpectedly meaningful route (and made consequently timeless), or an image recorded through artistic endeavour; all these can conjure a need to release a considered reaction. This is how in many instances my work begins.

The detail that struck a spark was in a scene showing, in plan, a rectangular pool surrounded by stylized sycamore fig trees, date palms and mandrake bushes. This was accompanied by the fragment of a hieroglyphic caption. But as if made mute by our loss of the paintings’ house of the dead, from where they came, the text was all but washed away – worn by time, or by the process of their theft and transportation from the shores of the Nile. The absence of those words encouraged mine; the projected ritual qualities of the religious text that was missing instilled in me the quasi-religiosity of the poetic gesture.

Contemplation may lead to revelation. Total familiarity with a picture, a place, an idea, may make one sufficiently part of its world to unveil its true poetic meaning, allowing an echo to resound in the re-formed architecture of the mind. Such a place then is where poems (but not only poems) can engender their contour and in some way fix it with a condition of permanence. Albeit itself a conditional permanence in quite another way: conditional upon the circumstance of its preservation – not of course guaranteed. But contemplation that results from revisiting the site of an instance of inspiration is part of the working process that leads to a new work. In some ways it is also the most challenging part of such a work, since it requires maintaining a state of mind, and a state of emotional awareness, that would normally be a fleeting sensation buoyed up or alleviated by the balancing intervention of other states of mind. These may allow the rhythms of mental – even spiritual – processes to maintain psychical equilibrium. A poem is in consequence the most problematic of art forms, because it invites continued contemplation after the act of composition is over, without as much loss of power by which a painting always seen by new light, or a song heard sung by a new voice, are experientially eroded. It follows perhaps naturally, then, that a poem must be written either very quickly or with much effort over a far more protracted period – perhaps even years. In The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, the poet Rilke suggests that a whole lifetime’s experience might be enough to pen just ten good lines of verse.

I struggled, anyhow, with what appeared to be the task in hand – for about eighteen months. A line here, a line there; a partial stanza drafted, a metrical verse deleted or a word sought after and at once lost before the sense, or verbal acumen, or the whispering tongue, could catch hold of it for record or utterance. Somehow the poem remained elusive: lost from the outset, before any sense of an origin could be claimed for it, in order for it then to become truly lost.

I continued my regular visits to the museum. I was drawn repeatedly to those scenes of Nebamun, either at leisure or overseeing the daily activities of life depicted in the fragments on display: hunting in the marshes of the river delta, at a feast swathed in fragrant incense, or receiving a report from a scribe – carrying, once again, a blank ‘text’ on an unrolled papyrus – who presented himself respectfully to the deceased. One further scene perhaps holds the key to the dilemma of my thwarted creative impulse, a clue to how this powerful source of inspiration was conditioning me unconsciously to respond to it with a further, reverential, work. One of the surviving frescoes shows a trio of dancers and small group of musicians, ‘piping’ as Keats said of another ancient depiction ‘to the spirit ditties of no tone’. While I had been aware of a curious rhythm at work in these paintings, with which I seemed to be increasingly sympathetic as my visits went on, and which had misled me into believing that the only reply to the exposition of my ancient, anonymous artist was a reply in poetic terms – this crucial moment of mute music was perhaps the element that would unlock the door between the dead past and the living present. Yet I do not remember a moment when I looked once again at that troupe of musicians and dancers and relaxed my reaching after the word, figuratively to inhale in advance of breathing out a ‘song’ thoughtfully, through the process of musical composition. (Such ‘reaching after the word’ immediately belies any claim I might make on ‘negative capability’ – that which Keats defined as letting contradictions rest, without any yearning for reason or fact.) A curiosity concerning the way in which the faces of the musicians are executed is arguably indicative of the ancient artist’s opinions about music: it is a rarity in Egyptian art that the features are depicted in full – not simply in profile. Two of the musicians are painted in this way; crucially, one plays a double reed-flute (‘melody’) and the other, hand clapping, represents that which provides emphasis of periodic profile (‘rhythm’). In a little group of ‘Garden Songs’ translated by Noel Stock, the movement and rhythm of a little sycamore – planted by the song singer’s beloved – engenders a request to “send your slaves for the music”. Such directness of an appeal to music as an immediate reaction to life-affirming scenarios is clearly suggested by the tomb painting, and was perhaps at work in my unconscious as I repeatedly viewed the artist’s work.

It is not necessarily for oneself to decide, in that case; a creative gesture whose originator’s fingers reach out across the centuries disavows any claim to individual basis for the response. Yet these things remain hidden and mysterious. Physiologically, of course, there is a known disjunction between the cerebral hemispheres, insofar as the linguistic and artistic centres of the human brain are concerned. But for me these are only signs already a little way along the road from where the journey of thought begins. Just as the moment when the universe came into being shrinks to an ever smaller size as understanding homes in on that ‘first instance’, the ‘zep-tepy’ [lit. ‘first occasion’] in ancient Egyptian, never to locate or explain it; so the true instant when creativity sparks, and determines its outcome, is eternally elusive. Eternity and the moment are as one in the arena of creative work: so it is in cosmology, and in the ancient Egyptian concept of time ‘infinite’ or ‘eternal’.

‘Elusion’ – perhaps even ‘illusion’ – is the result of having discarded poetry for the purposes of finding a way out of my contemplative detention, to turn instead to music. There is perhaps something discursive about such a decision (which seems somehow to have been made for me, and certainly unconsciously). The shape of the piece – that seems to have decided that it did not wish to be a poem, but wished rather to be music – reflects this apparently discursive process. I have before me now a ‘three movement’ work which, for some while during its composition I subtitled ‘Poem for Orchestra’, moves organically rather than symphonically through a series of meditative ideas in the first part, via a kind of scherzo, to arrive back in a slower-paced world of processions and fleeting glimpses of static joy (not without attempts at something noble). It is more of a symphony (and bears the title that heads this essay), in the end, than anything else but it is still a kind of illusion. A more ‘romantic’ and orientalising view would see it as a musical ‘mirage’; but as such, it more successfully elucidates the struggle of recapturing the moment of inspiration that my repeated visits to the museum may be said to suggest.

Lines from a sonnet that I wrote while travelling by boat down the Nile, at the very end of the last century (yes, there is something wonderful about sounding like an idle gentleman traveller), paradoxically convey something of what the music of my symphony in part conjures up. Or what some may hear it as conjuring.

A fisherman unwinds his tangled net,
And casts a fleeting, idle glance at me,
As slowly in my boat I pass and see
The naked evening sun begin to set,
Divested of its fire. The reeds and rushes
Whisper secret stories to the breeze
And in the fields beyond, the silent trees
Take heed, but do not answer. […]

Night-time’s net is cast, the mountain glows,
As the sun’s last light is sheared in rippling rows.

In the end, perhaps my response to those remarkable paintings in the gallery does not furnish me with any answers concerning life, awareness and thought; nor do they, as a simple source of inspiration, allow me to see why one ‘work of art’ as compared with any other becomes constituted as a poem or picture, a song or a story. What I have managed to achieve was not what I originally sought out to accomplish – a poem became a symphony: the words washed away from the sycamore-shaded scene by the pool, in the tomb of Nebamun, have now become translated into the yet more ephemeral condition of music’s ‘dying fall’.


About davidlewistonsharpe
Composer, poet, harpsichordist and artist.

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