Did they used to have sections of standardized testing that dealt with interpreting proverbial sayings? I have a vague memory of this…and that I sucked at it, either because I was not 75 years old, or because apparently I was raised on the plains of Mars by wolves under the Witness Protection Program, and so much of the outside world was dramatically filtered. Anyway, such proverbs have always intrigued me, mostly because they flirt with nonsense, and nonsense is a long-term paramour of mine. (Note: nonsense is not the same as random verbiage: it’s ill-named and might perhaps be called “a-sense” by analogy with “amoral” compared to “immoral.”)
So, three pieces of music setting proverbs. First up is a piece by composer Michael Torke, for a small ensemble and vocalist, called (in the usual, extraordinarily evocative fashion of classical pieces, Four Proverbs. This is the third of four proverbs set in this piece (again, cleverly titled “III”), and its text is only two lines long. (The lyrics to the piece are drawn entirely from the biblical book of Proverbs, and this is the most compact and evocative of the four selections to my ears.)
Second, “Twenty-Two Proverbs,” a tricky bricolage of various proverbs from the quite curious Kew. Rhone. album by John Greaves, Peter Blegvad, and Lisa Herman. Some of these proverbs are so obscure I thought Blegvad (who’s responsible for the lyrics) simply made them up. In particular, I still can’t make head or tale of “what have I to do with Bradshaw’s windmill?” A websearch on the phrase “Bradshaw’s windmill” (in quotes) reveals nothing; removing the quotation marks led me to an article from the journal Notes & Queries (basically, turbogeekery for the literary world), which I’ve duplicated here (the journal itself has an annoying, although free, registration process). Blegvad apparently drew this phrase from Thomas Fuller, an 18th century writer – which makes sense, given that the painting which inspired much of the album (C.W. Peale’s Exhumation of the Mastodon) was done roughly contemporaneously, at the beginning of the 19th century. Greg Crossan, the author of the Notes & Queries piece, mentions the proverb, but only alludes to what it might mean. I got nothing. (Incidentally, this sort of writing is the kind that I find immensely fascinating for a couple of paragraphs, after which – as it drones on – it suddenly turns into quicksand for consciousness.)
Finally, here’s Nobukazu Takemura’s remix of Steve Reich’s “Proverb,” whose lyric is a short phrase from the proverb-like writing of Wittgenstein. (Shades of Komar & Melamid’s “Most Wanted/Unwanted Music”…)Here are Reich’s notes on the original piece. I think the glitchiness of Takemura’s take on this piece suits the whole notion of proverbs.
(full disclosure: I should probably mention that Michael’s my cousin. We grew up around the block from one another, and spent a lot of time together as kids, although we’re in very infrequent contact these days. Oh – and actually, many of his pieces do have interesting titles: most notoriously, a whole series derived from colors, along with materials, addresses, everyday objects, and so forth.
Finally, that “proverb” titling this entry? I made it up. If it means anything, it’s totally by accident.