I think it's good to recognise that the small acceptable differences which
Dougolly recognises can and do have vast effects on a reading, on the way
we understand it and its meaning (I don't think Doug's saying otherwise,
but I think it's worth stressing). Frinstance -
Over the years I've listened to a number of recordings of Basil Bunting
reading _Brigflatts_. The range of intonation employed, and the range of
pace, vary dramatically and are difficult to demonstrate here (one minor
example, tho, would be the fact that - generally speaking - he rrroll'd
his norrrtherrrn "rrr" more when reading in the USA. The normal Throckley
accent he grew up with and kept all his life actually doesn't have much of
a roll...). Generally, not surprisingly, his voice dropped with age, and
his last recordings were noticably slower.
But also evident are considerable variations in the timing and stresses in
the delivery of individual lines. To take the lines from the middle of the
piece, where Israfel is waiting to blow the last trumpet, to call time on
When will the signal come
to summon man to his clay?"
Of the many recordings available, I'll draw only on those which have been
commercially released: (a) 1968, Stream Records, currently re-issued by
Keele University, and (b) 1980, Bloodaxe Books.
Let's look at the main stresses (ignoring the minor ones at this point):
In (a) the primary stresses are:
When will the *signal *come
to *summon *man to his *clay?
In (b) we have:
*When will the signal come
to *summon man to his clay?
There are other elements which I could bring in: the use of rising
cadence, the slight internal variations of pace, and so on. But this
alone, I'd say, radically alters the reading of the passage, and so, of
the whole poem, particularly when we build in the alterations in pace and
pitch and other elements already referred to: where in (a) we have a
frustrated, faintly civil-servant angel waiting for the paperwork to come
through, (b) overlays this with a far more personal statement from the man
who said in his interviews at about this time "I've outlived my time":
weary in the extreme. And, I'd say, both readings are good, valid
renderings of the text, it's not a question of (a) or (b) or even the text
I'd say that it would be possible to go on, comparing recordings and
showing how they differ, in the way which I could compare, say, Richter
and Gavrilov playing Handel. Hearing multiple readings is, to my ears,
always revalatory, rather than a process of putting ticks and crosses.
Behind this, perhaps, is my faith in the performance strategy urged on me
by an old and wise music teacher: Before you perform, ask yourself: What
is my motive in giving this performance? Why is it different to all the
other times I've played this piece? And an awareness (which comes to me
every time I listen to old Schnabel recordings) that the yardstick of
performance is not the number of right notes you do/don't hit, but the
insights you get across. Within certain limits, of course! This might
also explain in general why I prefer listening to poets (who on the whole
have awful reading techniques, and like Doug I wish they trained more, and
earlier) to actors, who generally have lovely voices but poor or limited
insights to offer.
Like Doug too I'd like to hear more children taught the oldfashioned
skills of reciting, and indeed of singing. But that's another story, I
won't bore you with my Berlioz-like vision of the City Organised on
Oh, and "minor artists borrow, great artists steal" but I'm not going to
say who said that heh heh...