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Beat poetry comes to the 13th Annual Outsound New Music Summit

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Last night in the Capp Street Concert Hall of the Community Music Center, the 13th Annual Outsound New Music Summit presented its first concert. The title of the program was PoetryFreqs to capture the theme of poetry and other spoken word compositions read in a setting of electronic sonorities (frequencies). This turned out to be one of the most historically significant events of the Summit season, since the second set featured ruth weiss (who insists on spelling her name in lower case as a protest against “law and order”).

Born in 1928, weiss lived through almost the entirety of the twentieth century from a vantage point that would justify her saying that she has “seen it all.” She was born into a Jewish family in Germany when the Nazis were just beginning to garner public support. Her parents thought they could escape Adolf Hitler by moving to Vienna; and, when that didn’t work, they managed to get a train from Vienna to Amsterdam. They eventually arrived in New York City in 1939.

During the pre-concert Q&A, weiss explained that she never learned English in classrooms. Rather she learned everything “by ear” (her words), engaging her own mind to build the bridge between sound and meaning. (Some, myself included, might take this as a sign of a poet in the making.) By the time the family moved to Chicago, she was ready for the school system and eventually graduated in the top 1% of her class. After the end of World War Two, her parents returned to Germany to work with the Army of Occupation; and weiss went to school in Switzerland. Her Wikipedia page states that there she “spent much time hitchhiking and writing - two skills that would prove pivotal to her future in the American Bohemian Beat scene.”

Indeed, weiss was a precursor to that scene. She was reading her poetry and jamming with street musicians before the opening of The Cellar, associated with the birth of the Beat movement in San Francisco. Much of that legacy came to light through the selection of poems she read last night, including one particularly intense account of that train ride from Vienna to Amsterdam. All of her readings were accompanied by her companion Hal Davis tapping out rhythms on a hollow log, recalling the distinctive role that bongo drums played in the early days of Beat poetry.

This was all pulled into the 21st century with improvised electronic accompaniment provided by Doug Lynner. Lynner was, without a doubt, the most “frequency-based” musician on last night’s program. He worked from a table supporting two boxes of components and a rat’s nest of connecting cable. From my elevated vantage point in the balcony, I could not see clearly how he managed his gear; but for the most part his activities seemed to involve real-time control of potentiometers, rather than anything as pedestrian as a keyboard (chromatic or otherwise). The result was that each of weiss’ poems was situated in a landscape of electronic sound, equally compatible with her words, Davis’ rhythms, and the intonations of a voice that is still going strong after her 86th birthday (another one of the subjects of her poetry).

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