Of all the entertainment arts, poetry may be the least appreciated. Film, TV, music, other literature, even painting and sculpture seem to have wide audiences. Poetry, not so much. Some households may claim an anthology or two, but books of poetry are being released every day like pieces of trees falling silently in a forest. Perhaps the medium needs a new medium: a live audience (as in poetry slams) or a musical context (FareWell Poetry, Esther Burns). The Genius of the Crowd provides such a medium, embedding the words of Charles Bukowski in a field of glitch, organ, mellotron, theremin, and other appealing instruments. The end result comes across as a soundscape, a hybrid of Godspeed! You Black Emperor’s early dialogue experiments (with politics included) and the ambient industrial excursions of artists performing during the same time period. And yet, because this music veers away from obvious melody or any popular mode of composition, its effect seems timeless.
“Delightfully depressing” may be the best way to describe this three-part, 22-minute piece. The sentiments are dour, the backing subdued until the closing minutes. But the creativity trumps the mood, producing an injured awe. The French duo deepens the drama by separating its dialogue segments, occasionally repeating a significant passage or phrase. This repetition invites the listener to ruminate on the meaning of each downcast utterance.
Although the bulk of the recording is from Bukowski, the piece begins with Milton Friedman: first of all, tell me, is there some society you know that doesn’t run on greed? This section directly attacks not only the status quo, but the idea that we are achieving our ideological goals. That was a myth; what was the reality? That was a period when millions of people from all over the world streamed to these shores. They came here with empty hands, in the hope and the belief that they could make a better life for themselves and their children. The crackling static and somber piano surrounding this passage emphasize the gap between hope and reality, underlining a nostalgia for blinder times.
But then the spotlight turns to Bukowski, who seems convinced that everyone but an artist is a scoundrel. His distinction seems to lie with a different set of the elite and the masses. The genius of the crowd, he sullenly rages, is its hatred, participating in exclusion while railing against it. The poet sounds utterly defeated, forlorn, deserted, one step away from total retreat. As he speaks, percussion and strings begin to punctuate his words. Without the music, the diatribe is powerful, but with the music, it grows into something nearly transcendent. Unfortunately, it’s a transcendence of hope, a turning of the back upon dreams in order to avoid disappointment. On the one hand, this seems very disillusioning. On the other, who hasn’t felt this way from time to time? Esther Burns’ own genius is the courage to rescue such sentiments from the sands of time, to cloak it in new cloths, to bring it to the party to which it never wanted to go, to put a drink in its hand, to step back and wonder if it will ever mingle on its own.
The brightness of the glockenspiel indicates movement, but as the piece concludes, it’s angry gloom that wins. The dark guitar of the final three minutes demonstrates what happens when the coin of depression flips to anger. This is by all indications a healthy thing, although more healthy for the person expressing it than for the person or institution receiving it. And while it may not be a call to arms, it’s still a lifting of the head from the mire, a final boost to Bukowski that enhances his words while thrusting them into modern contexts and conversations. Those wishing to confront emotion rather than to flee from it will find The Genius of the Crowd an excellent companion. (Richard Allen)