This summer I’m collaborating on a new local project, the Washougal Songcraft Festival, which features regional songwriters. A related ongoing activity is the Washougal Song Circle, hosted by myself and my wife Stephanie.
Looking at it through the lens of Cult of Orpheus, there’s a clear connection between attention to individual songwriters working in a variety of genres and this project’s longtime focus on composition of lyrical vocal music and opera. As mentioned in my previous post, the name ‘art-song’ is at best pretentious and creates an artificial separation between practitioners of songcraft.
I want to continue to entangle, rather than disentangle, the threads of lyrical creativity around and within me. On this impulse, I feel called to kindle the Cult of Orpheus revival with more fires than just my own, and with more approaches to songcraft than just the through-composed.
What makes a wonderful poetic song work? This will be the immediate concern here, and I look forward to trying to explore my sense of it through celebration of specific works, with special focus on regional songwriters. There is no genre or process prescription, so this journey may include exploration of through-composed score-song as well as any other method of song creation. I will however focus on works emerging from the living, particularly in my region, as that’s the garden that needs tending and nourishing.
Check back for the first posts in this series! They will be tagged with ‘songcraft’.
Here at Cult of Orpheus we are obsessed with the beautiful art of notated, through-composed song. It’s often referred to in English as “art-song” – a name that needs a replacement! At once pretentious and overly generic, “art-song” seems to imply that other methods of songwriting aren’t art, while also not describing at all what makes the art form unique: being typically through-composed as fully notated song and accompaniment of a poetic text.
We are therefore proposing new names for this favorite art form, and asking you to vote! We will tally the results and post here as 2022 winds down – and start 2023 with a new name for one of our favorite art forms.
These two sonnets, “Nets” and “On Her Walk”, were written in 2016 as part of the unreleased Time-Wise Animals project.
There were pounds of cotton, bleached and dyed,
pulled from tufted blooms in southern seasons,
twisted into knots and diamond-tied,
soaked in blood and thunderstorms and reasons.
There was nylon, plastic spooled and cut,
fit for pulling life out of the water,
stretched across the frets in place of gut,
woven on the legs of someone’s daughter.
Millions walk the tightrope of abuse.
We look down. What chances will we take?
Safety nets of barbed wire are no use
but they’re cheap to build, and tough to break.
Will we perch our children on the wire?
Will we set the circus tent on fire?
On Her Walk
Ghosted pavement leaf-prints under sole.
Iron painted with the blood of rain.
Ink flows through the poster on the pole.
One green shoot twines up the metal drain.
Green paint on the red brick chiseled, chipped.
Chains on textured gates in cold, thick groups.
Scribbled cracks (unconscious urban script).
Faces formed in razor-wire loops…
Any wall can be a prison wall.
All her walls are canvases of time
where decadence bookends the wrecking ball,
defies the crane, the crew, the shiny crime.
In between construction sites, they talk —
old stones and broken things loved on her walk.
– C. A. Corbell
There are fragments that have been misplaced:
the bottle cap popped with lighter and knuckle,
the blue glass collection in the neighbor’s windows,
the red porch couch, the old green Schwinn,
the wedding gowns that the punk band wore,
the broken violin and matching helmet,
the thrift store print of midwestern mallards,
the metal cassette 4-track masters,
the vinyl pants and the foam trucker cap,
the ceramic fuses burnt out in the basement,
the library surplus-sale leftovers,
the pocket notebooks full of disintegrating hours
of abandoned bars, wilted parties, dropped classes,
the urban orbits and escape velocities
of bicycle sun and whiskey moon,
cheap rent, slow clock, sweet street…
The future excavation won’t find these.
It will only uncover the way, over centuries,
city blocks shift like puzzle pieces,
never quite fit
and the picture they were trying to make
long before the missing piece is found.
– Christopher Corbell, August 2022
Our world’s a cornucopia of trash,
bright with all our aimless art’s depicting.
This habit’s an abundant source of ash —
every thing that burns can be addicting.
A flaming branch of bad and worse decisions
forks off universes, all entangled
quantum thoughts with infinite revisions,
cruelties, missteps, consequences mangled
in the predatory maw of time.
What if we just lie creature-still, and feel
the terror-gratitude of the sublime
and in our brokenness forgive the real?
Salvation is inverted. In this trying
some dreaming god gains mercy from the dying.
They keep multiplying,
right angles to right angles,
the easiest way to appear
Most of the cosmos
is not orthogonal —
arc or diagonal,
wave or ripple,
circle or scribble.
Will the circle be cut
by and by,
by the axis?
Are your hours counted
in the quadrilaterals
of payroll stubs, resumés,
screens of square memes?
Measure your heart
with an old god’s feather.
Measure your work
with a rolling boulder.
Measure your hours
greater or lesser
in units of beauty.
My Muse is not Euclidean.
Her sword is fractal-edged,
her wings unfold like a falcon’s,
her irises shift in the colors of fire.
I would be a worthy maker –
one who sees use in the useless,
one who bends the straight toward elegance
and entangles the obvious,
one who hates the stolid moderation
between acute and obtuse.
work all in right angles –
ledgers and nameplates,
box stores and legal briefs,
swastikas, crosses, coffins.
The seed was made for cold,
patient in its sleep
below the soil-bound leaves.
blackens, feeding spring
with clean decay.
In rich layers of space
is this blue earth-bubble,
seed among the stars.
Our busy action churns
bacterial in scale
for some work yet to sprout.
What germ is sleeping here,
what embryonic tree,
its branches all imagined,
its leaves spread to the possible,
its fruit beyond our mouths
and reaching fingers?
Saint Tantalus teach us
Your prison is a husk,
your lust the force
inside the Holy Seed.