CHRIS TORRANCE: Comet

10 Feb 2011. Chris Vine flying over from Brazil. Together we are to perform our CD of the super-edited version of RORI: A BOOK OF THE BOUNDARIES, at Chapter Theatre, Cardiff.

It was in the 1980s, on a bike ride, that I discovered the parish of Vaynor, with its 2 historic churches – one contained within the arms of the other, so to speak. When I set out on the bike that particular day, I had little expectation beyond that of seeing yet another stubby, stony Norman church set in a vale. But Vaynor was revealed as a place of magic, mystery, & terror, where the industrial giant palliated with Renaissance visions, suitably corrupted through Celtic modes

of romance. Straightaway I began writing about it. & my friend Jan Leather, another Vaynor freak, dumped a large bundle of parish histories & legends & other material which she’d copied at Merthyr library, into my lap. That gave me a big push into the book that eventually became RORI. A huge manuscript which I returned to from time to time over the next 20 or so years.   Never thinking that it would become a text for our poetry & music band HEATPOETS to do.

The need for rehearsal. to bring alive. RORI is going to be a tricky beast to bring alive.

*

The backstory. My upbringing. Middle class RC kid growing up in suburban Surrey in the grey postwar 50s. Environment of church, mediocre faith school,

compulsory sports. Army cadets. Classical music.

Conformity.

At some stage in my early teens I heard, on radio, a jangly pounding piano music by a woman called Winifred Atwell in a style called boogie woogie. I was immediately tickled up by this sound, the fun & raggedness & joykick of it. It

became a bridge into jazz which became the passion of my life.

Jazz was an experience of sheer noise, exciting, sensual; dirty – something I could drown in, whether it be Charlie Parker’s prodigal tunes & soloes, Dizzy Gillespie soaring to effortless heights, or sharp elbow proddings from Thelonious Monk. Also, gradually revealed, were tales of slavery, oppression, discrimination. Jazz was an outlaw music, resolutely going its own way. In my cultural isolation, I felt like an outlaw too.

In jazz, theoretically at least, an artist could go anywhere. For me, here was a way out of conformity; & spontaneity & improvisation were the keys. What took me longer to learn was that, in order to improvise fluently, one had to have

technique, gained through constant practice. By my late teens, I could jam out a bit on piano, but never stuck at it long enough to become proficient. Already a bookworm, though, I soon developed a way with words.

Kerouac’s ON THE ROAD came out, which provided me with a model for the fusion of writing method with the improvisational dynamic of jazz.

Leaving school at 15, it was a relief when I started earning money of my own, as clerk/gofer for solicitors in Fitzroy Square, London. Fitzrovia! Virginia Woolf!! At least I knew her name . . .

As office junior I was sent out every day on various missions. I was able to scout scary Soho, & investigate the bookshops up & down the Charing Cross Road. Periodicals. The discovery of radical dissent. The rise of CND. The Aldermaston

marches. Skiffle, a do-it-yourself music that launched a huge wave of indigenous pop & rock. I went to jazz concerts by the big names of the day, & began visiting clubs such as The Marquee & Ronnie Scotts.

I went in & out of various looseish boy gangs. I explored coffee bars & edgy leftwing pubs, hearing folk music, trad & modern jazz by British players. But I was unable to truly connect, to find the hip soulmates I felt I desperately needed.

In the summer of 1961 I met a whole new bunch of friends, known as The Mob, who were all into jazz & blues in a big way, & particularly the music of Charles Mingus. I went to jazz parties distinguished by a weird jinking dance called the Jesus Jump. During the parties a notebook would be passed around in which everybody wrote poems & stories & fragments & just plain bits of surreal nonsense. Poetry & performance straightaway then . . .

I had arrived at a place where I could, however cautiously, be.

The Mob started a magazine, ORIGINS DIVERSIONS, which brought us into contact with the then flourishing world of little magazines & small poetry presses. Suddenly there was space to write into, & I took up writing in earnest. This meant I would have to read poetry, which I hadnt really done before.

I soon met Lee Harwood, a poet & activist involved in the London scene, & through him began to explore the exciting alternative poetries of the time. I picked up off a 2nd hand bookstall in Sutton the ground breaking THE NEW AMERICAN POETRY 1945 – 60 edited by Don Allen, with its pages of poetics & mini-autobiogs by the likes of Charles Olson. Robert Duncan & Denise Levertov, as well as the Beat poets I was already reading.

Each issue of ORIGINS DIVERSIONS was launched with a reading in pub, club or church halL. Reading my work live, quite frankly, terrified me. There was only one way to tackle that – rehearse. So I read my work out loud in my attic bedsit,

both rehearsing & redrafting at the same time, going with Olson’s idea that the breathing patterns of the poet helped shape the poem on the page, which in turn became the score for the reading.

I was learning how to sound the work.. Asserting the weights & balances, the rhythms & timings. Picking up on Ginsberg’s long line, the cadences of Harwood. Harry Fainlight’s pauses & dramatic commitments. Tom Raworth’s speed. The dry gravel of William Burroughs. I took to prowling around the venue as I read, to get the whole body involved.

By now, mid-60s, I had left the law, the black suit & shiny black shoes behind, & was working for the Carshalton Parks Department. After a day’s work, I would return tired to my bedsit, freshen up, eat. Cup of tarry orange tea. Put on

some jazz. There was one particular album, MONK PLAYS DUKE, that became favourite. Often, after a couple of tracks, a few bars into a solo, being drawn along by Monk’s probing exploration of an Ellington tune, I would inevitably reach for the notebook & begin writing, or correcting a poem in draft. Monk’s music still echoing in my head, I would take the notebook out for a walk round the back streets of Carshalton, or along the banks of the River WandIe, utilising the sketching technique made famous by Jack Kerouac as I went along.

By the summer of 1966 I considered myself first & foremost to be a poet, writing & studying furiously.

From the mid 60s to the mid 70s, by which time I was living in Wales, my readings were given by voice alone, unaccompanied. To be honest, I was never really that impressed by attempts at “jazz & poetry” that I’d heard, & I didnt really think that I would be moving in that direction. I was completely bowled over, nonetheless, by the words & music of Captain Beefheart. Here was someone delivering what sounded & looked very much like poetry, at considerable volume & with a fantastic vocal range, to say nothing of the extraordinary sound of the band.

By 1973 I was visiting poet-musician Barry Edgar Pilcher in Cardiff, & soon joined his poetry & music band DRAGONS BLOOD: & for the first time I was reading my work accompanied by musicians.

There were up to 7 or 8 people in the band at anyone time, & it was difficult for us all to find our right places in the setup, which was, anyway, very freeform. For me the key was learning to project my voice more, to work at a volume compatible with the instruments. The real breakthrough came when I started chanting street names from a map of the city as a sort of chorus to lines I was writing at rehearsals. The poem which resulted, CARNIVAL, was the first written specifically for performance with a band.

When DRAGONS BLOOD broke up a few years later I assumed this phase in my work as a poet was over. By 1976 I was embarked upon another direction, being employed part-time by UC Cardiff to tutor an extra-mural class which soon became ADVENTURES IN CREATIVE WRITING. This represented a steep learning curve for me, as I’d never taught before.

The class began to grow year by year, & by the early 80s it was clear that the class was moving out from on-the-page writing into public performance, spearheaded by such writers as Mark Williams, Graham Hartill, Julie Fiera & Gill Brightmore, & later on by Lis Bletsoe, Chris (now Topher) Mills, Ifor Thomas & Gene Nowakowsky. Mills’s Red Shark Press published over a dozen issues of the class magazine CABARET 246, so named after the number of our room in the Humanities Building where the class was held.

*

Graham Hartill had introduced me to Chris Vine in 1984. Chris had not long returned from the US, where he had been doing a degree course in Synclavier at Washington DC, & had been touring, playing clubs, & recording with various bands.

Chris was getting bored with run-of-the-mill pop songs, & wanted to work with some real words, especially words in poems. He soon expressed an interest in working with me, & in due course we began to have a few jams. Then Gene Nowakowsky, who was organising an event at Treforest College, asked us to join the bill.

Calling ourselves POETHEAT, we began serious rehearsals, often in the attic of the house at The Esplanade in the docks area of Cardiff where Graham was living. Percussionist Roy Ashbery managed a session with us, & played with us at the gig.

Roy was no conventional drummer. “You won’t get a regular rock beat out of me,” he promised, “but you will get continuous timbre, & cycles.” When we arrived at the venue he spread out an array of 100 pieces of percussion. During our 25 minute set Roy strolled obliquely through his kit, striking here, kicking

there, setting up counterpoints & cymbal rushes. It wasnt a rock beat but it was hugely propulsive.

At the end of our set, as I stepped away from my first public outing with a rock mic, I remember wiping a fine sheen of sweat off my brow & thinking, well, if this is what its like, I want to do more of it.

For the first time I was working with a full-blown electric guitar sound, played by a man who could perhaps be described as a roots musician who had started playing during the punk era. Chris had taken influences from the likes of ‘Captain

Beefheart, Ry Cooder, & Jimi Hendrix. The roots came from Chris’s affinity for wild landscape & the magical transformations of nature.

Rather than being based on chord sequences & bar lines, Chris’s music has tended to be in loops & modes, exploited through all the devices available to today’s guitar player. Much of his lead playing occupies the middle register of his instrument, with drones supplied by unusual tunings of the top & bottom strings. His music accumulates in layers, & by accretions of meaning pulled into existence by a wide palette of sounds, orchestral in impact.

As more POETHEAT gigs came & went, so the writing went on, often bleak material that reflected the Thatcher years, such as ANGEL BUSTED & THE KING’S ROYAL MOOR; & I found myself more often using the prophetic rant as a way of staying even with the volume of the music. By then I’d already taken an interest in at least some of the rap music that was becoming popular; plus I was reading aloud Anne Waldman’s poem PRESSURE for practice, with its driving rhythms & wry, humorous anger directed at the urban consumer lifestyle. & I became ambitious to write a long, rolling poem in similar style celebrating the rituals & routines of going out on a Friday night with money to spend.

During absences by Chris Vine abroad, I worked much of the time with a local guitarist, Bob Middleton, who played powerful lead-rhythm licks to fuel the ongoing composition of FRINITE, & who made suggestions & even supplied some

lines as the different parts of the poem arrived. During an average 6 – 8 hour session we would work our way through a pile of typed & scribbled drafts, constantly rearranging, adding & deleting material until we had something

like a final version. This poem has such an open frame that it can constantly be added to or amended, & can be performed in many different ways. A second voice can be employed, & on at least one occasion, at a gig in Oxford, poet Lloyd Robson joined me onstage where we swapped choruses & duetted together on some of the standout lines. Lloyd also contributed a few strategically important lines to the poem.

Where Chris Vine’s sense of time was impeccable & precise, Bob’s style was more impulsive. Chris preferred me to give a relatively straight & level reading of a poem, & let the music do the rest, whereas Bob was always keen that I “go for it.” The more volume & expression I put into my voice, the harder he would play.

Bob, then, was my consistent rehearsal colleague, keeping me in performance trim week in, week out; playing sometimes until his fingers literally bled & my voice became hoarse & croaky.

*

Mid-Feb 2011. Rehearsal with Chris, 6 hours a day, for 3 days, here in the house.

Whats it like to be inside HEATPOETS, as we have renamed ourselves?

As a poet working solo, I’ve been accustomed to maintaining my own tempos & continuity at readings, however I’ve scored them. Working with Chris I’ve had to learn how to be an equal partner, to give him plenty of room to work in, establishing modes & riffs, mood shifts, rhythmic gear changes. I’m conscious the multiple of 2 people working together becomes equal to the power of 3. The situation transforms & expands the work, extends it readily outward. We work hard, keep it up, in the cramped cottage room, with all the equipment laid out on floors & furniture around us.

Sometimes, in repetitious utterance, my words can dismay me. They sound naked, vulnerable. The heft of the music is reassuring. Its one thing to read poetry solo, another to work in partnership, setting up cues & phases, beginnings & endings, placing my words into Chris’s varying nets, beats, developments.

I have to build a platform for myself, a mastaba of power, of level assurance, without losing the musicality, the syllable dance, the particular line the spoken vocal takes through the rolling surfs & climaxes of the music.

Perhaps I dont own these words anymore. Like space dust they are out there, moving away, dancing to galactic music. Theyve taken on a life of their own.

I know that in the live situation – the gig at Chapter – the music will keep coming. So I just have to keep going. While commitment is essential, target fixation can trigger a warning light. & RORI is difficult, because its new, & because its a long poem of many moods.

*

By 2004 Chris had taken on board the challenge of us making a CD of RORI, & to that end I slimmed the book down radically & sent that version to Chris, now residing in Brazil. RORI, I stated in a letter to Chris, “could be anything – a hiphop opera, gothic surf, a romance – its a goer. A lyric corniche. A strawberry ice cream cone from Venus . . .”

RORI may be the nearest to the spirit, if not the form of a ballad I’ve done. In the sense that a heroic figure encounters triumphs, setbacks, & vicissitudes. In the end, it is the land itself that endures, the spirit rising out of the land, & falling back into the land, like the seasons, seasons of light years.

The RORI CD, when it arrived in 2011, was a shock wave. Sexy, in proportion. Rhythms building with each track. In places scary enough to raise spine hairs: The flavour & resonance of the wordstream opened right out. The “Taliesin” pages, rough & stormy & turgid, jazzing into a prolonged guitar & drums jam-out worthy of a Hendrix or a McLoughlin; or a Chris Vine & Wesley Ribeiro, who played drums on that track. Nagging, occulted guitars, wailing muted spirits, avatars starscapes. There is absolutely no escape from the streamy dark & diamond surf spraying the cerebrum, the sensorium. Basses dug down so deep

theyre heard in coal mines in China.

My blood freezes in terror as I listen to this thing I have had a hand in creating. Like something out of a horror movie it sits up & looks around & is alive & dirty, beyond me now, separate.

*

23 Feb 2011. That poetry should come to this …

Mammoth waves of sub-bass buckled the boards under my feet, as though I were in a fragile row boat afloat on an ocean of sound. Dimly-perceived figures prowled against a dark horizon; red fireflies winked; then came a succession of white flashes. I navigated onwards, maintaining position, sticking to my plotted course.

Close by me, to my left, Chris Vine worked a franken collection of synthesizer keyboard, pedals, computer, amplifier, black boxes, a spider’s web of wire, whilst

at the same time playing a white Yamaha guitar. & I was in position close to the bass speaker, my mouth glued to the mic, the super-edited edition of RORI: A BOOK OF THE BOUNDARIES in front of me .

. . . that poetry should come to this ?

0230 hours Thu 24 Feb 2011. Everything about the gig went as planned. In the morning I burnt rosemary & sage & hyssop & a prayerpoem on paper dedicated to Mnemosyne, Mother of the Muses, Muse of Memory, for a successful event. The spill went up without any smoke.

Dread zone apprehension had built up during the day, but by the time I got to Chapter I was past the worst. By the start the theatre was full, with the audience on rows of chairs plus a few tables to give more of a cabaret atmosphere. My table, chair & mic were situated right next to the bass speaker cabinet; thus, when Chris kicked in the sub-bass, the boards of the stage quaked under my feet . . . the deckboards . . . of the ship . . . bucked & rolled under me “like a woman in transport”.

“Is this supposed to be avant garde?” someone asked me after the gig. Well, yes & no. Poetry & music was surely there together in the caves 40,000 years before the present, celebrants enacting their legends & rituals, the flicker of candles bringing the bison leaping alive from the cavewall.

The Comet. In from Brazil. Incandesces, from horizon to horizon. A complex entity compounded of volatiles & acids & gas & blood & pictish sitar imaginings & sallyports & jetstreams & ochre dubs.

*

I may dig jazz, but I dont neccessarily “understand” it. Taking principles from jazz into poetry, from jazz into both the composition & performance of poetry, is a leap into the dark every time. Not a musician, as a poet I can only try to imitate the spirit of the music I love when I practice & perform. I respond viscerally to a Coltrane, an Eric Dolphy, a Mingus, a Hendrix, or indeed a Chris Vine. The structures & techniques underlying that music – how I interpret it – are less clear – but I’m learning.

Duke. Bird. Monk. Mingus. Sonny Rollins. Ornette Coleman. All work differently. Different ambitions/ directions, different effects . Angers. Shouts. Passions. Loves. Blues. Pageants . . . pictures in the mind. Emotions in the soul.

” . . . the poetry is in the music.” (Jack Spicer). When I make the poem, reading it out loud helps me find the time in the poem, the tunes of the poem.

I cant work with saxophones: their sound is too akin to the human voice. The guitar – the original lyre – is it, to the voice – the most ideal companion along the way.

I dont sing. I cant. But I’ll do poetry ’til the end of time. Frequently do. When a poet & a guitarist get together, new energies are released. Chris pulls out fresh

stuff every time I go public with him. & I find new twists & turns in the text, pushing my expressive range further out. The jazz musicians bent the rules all to pieces. & reassembled them in challenging new ways.

You grab the spirit of expression, find a few good notes & grooves, & just keep that resonance going. Creating in the moment, for the moment; & stand or fall by that.

On Friday 27 April 2012 HEATPOETS played The Melville Theatre, Abergavenny. For me that evening was an experience of impeccably integrated sound. The monitor in front of me carried Chris Vine’s new 7 string guitar (“The Ace of Wands”), synth/keyboard & percussion direct with crystal definition, plus my own input, which helped me to feel completely immersed in what we were doing, especially on our closer FRINITE. Vine’s guitar snipes & drones & thundrous drums could only be described as relentless. Without doubt our best ever gig.

CT Midsummer 2012

Chris Torrance was born in Edinburgh in 1941. His parents took him to Outer London / Surrey in the late 1940′s. An indifferent education at a faith school was a prompt to leave at 15 to start earning money as a legal executive. Torrance left the law after 7 years to join Carshalton Parks Department as a garden labourer. 5 years later he moved to the Upper Neath Valley where he has lived ever since. Starting with GREEN ORANGE PURPLE RED (Ferry Press 1968) he has had many books published, most recently the CD album and booklet RORI, with Chris Vine, performing the work as poetry and music band HEATPOETS. A large collection, PATH, is due out from Skysill Pres in 2013.

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