Last week, we began a discussion of Robert Ashley and the “hapax legomenon,” pointing towards a mobilization of the notion of the “hapax” as a guide to the aesthetic ideologies of the American New Left.
To my mind, there is no work by Robert Ashley that better explores the “hapaxic” than “In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women” (1972): a work that is simultaneously about an almost lunatic fidelity to repetition and an equivalently outsized and demented devotion to difference.
So, to deepen our discussion, it will no doubt be edifying to listen to and think about In Sara, Mencken.
As with most works of 1960s-era experimental music, the best way to absorb the music is simply to listen to it, from beginning to end, without distractions. The point is almost never to chasten or trick the audience (as is sometimes the case in conceptual visual art). What a piece like Ashley’s provides is a psychedelic alteration of one’s cognitive circumstances. If one wants to understand the thoughts that the 1960s thought, one must, at some point, attend to such things.
Alvin Lucier, a friend and colleague of Ashley, provides the best introduction to the piece:
What a beautiful title! Sara is writer Sara Powell Haardt, writer and spouse of H.L. Mencken, American journalist and critic. We all know who Christ is and, of course, Beethoven. This poem is by John Barton Wolgamot, an obscure figure who worked as manager of the Little Carnegie Cinema in New York.
The poem, written in 1944, was discovered by poet and publisher… Keith Waldrop as he was browsing through a used bookstore. He showed it to Bob Ashley, who immediately took a liking to it, so much that he decided to make a large vocal work out of its text.
“In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women” is a litany of famous people. Wolgamot’s book consists of a hundred and twenty-eight stanzas, each one a single, run-on sentence occupying its own page. Here is the first one:
“In its very truly great manners of Ludwig van Beethoven very heroically the very cruelly ancestral death of Sarah Powell Haardt had very ironically come amongst his very really grand men and women to Rafael Sabatini, George Ade, Margaret Strom Jameson, Ford Maddox Hueffer, Jean-Jacques Bernard, Louis Bromfield, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, and Helen Brown Norden very titanically.”
“The stanzas,” Lucier continues, “are virtually of the same construction with the exception of four variables, including names and adverbs.”
Realizing that there were no stopping points or punctuation marks along the way to give the reader pause, except for commas separating the names, Ashley began the composition process by testing to see if he could read each stanza in one breath. Upon discovery that he could, indeed, read Wolgamot aloud in this way, Ashley “recorded all of them, then spliced out the spaces between them producing one entire uninterrupted reading.” The effect, for the listener, is that there is “little or no time to breathe” (N.B. an interesting turn of phrase from Lucier, since it is Ashley, and not the listener, who of course does not have a change to breathe, but we understand his meaning) which creates a “somewhat uneasy feeling.”
The finalization of the piece found Ashley, along with composer Paul DeMarinis, devising seven configurations of Moog synthesizer modules, filtering Ashley’s vocal performance in particular ways. “As the vocal sounds flow through the components they trigger electronic sounds creating a rich and varied tapestry of sound,” Lucier writes, and “Ashley’s voice creates the accompaniment.”
Lucier’s commentary, beyond this technical description, is fascinating. “Americans,” he writes, “love lists”—Lucier points to the Lewis and Clark expedition who “went out West and listed all the flowers.”
Wolgamot’s text, then, as reworked by Ashley, is, in a funny sense, traditional: a litany of names. “Fourteen of them—seven men and seven women—reappear often,” Lucier remarks, while “numerous others are repeated several times and hundreds of others occur only once, creating a sort of hierarchy of names that suggests a certain form not readily discernible to the listener.” Nonetheless, Lucier concludes, “they acquire a kind of beautiful grandeur.”
Is this not a perfect description of a hapaxic aesthetic ideology?
The story only gets more interesting when we attend to the account provided by Keith Waldrop, “discoverer” of Wolgamot’s text, posted by Kenneth Goldsmith on the web in 2007, and re-upped in recent weeks as a tribute to Ashley.
Waldrop reminisces: “On Wednesday, May 23rd, 1973, Robert Ashley and I went to see John Barton Wolgamot.” The meeting took place in the lobby of the Little Carnegie Cinema.
I hold on to this date, because so many moments I would like to pin down are imprecise or uncertain. For instance, I do not know when Wolgamot was born. At the time we met, I got the impression he was in his sixties. Tall and thin, in a black suit with a velvet collar. He was an old-fashioned spiffy dresser, a bit too aristocratic to look right on fifty-seventh street––except, perhaps, down at the end of the block, in Carnegie Hall. Sometime in the summer of 1957, I had stumbled onto his book, In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women. I am given to scratching around in second-hand book stores. My brothers had recently started a used car lot in Danville, Illinois, and a crony of theirs ran a second-hand book store. Naturally, I scratched around in it. As I went along the shelves, Wolgamot’s book––odd-shaped, wider than tall––caught my eye. The publisher’s name, like the author’s, was John Barton Wolgamot. At a glance, I could make nothing of it. I put it back. I went away.
But it stuck in my mind, the book with the odd shape, and I went back and (actually on my third visit) I bought the book. It was, after all, only fifty cents. Blue cloth binding: four and three-quarter inches tall by seven and three-quarter inches wide. Published in 1944. The right margin is unjustified in a way that suggests verse––but it is clearly prose. The first thing one notices, opening the book, is clusters of names––names of men and women, most of them writers, many well known. But then, even more striking, it becomes obvious that each page contains only one sentence, and it is always––except for the names––almost the same sentence.
From that summer, through some rather unsettled years, as other books came in and out of my hands, I held on to Wolgamot, unsure if it was good or bad, wonderful or ridiculous. The question gradually faded. After all, it appealed to me and, since I never really believed in a “canon” and never insisted that anyone share my appreciation, there was no problem. I occasionally showed the book to other people, a few other people, mostly––when I went to graduate school at the University of Michigan––fellow students. Mostly, but not all. My first friend in Ann Arbor (a clerk in a local bookstore) was Gordon Mumma, who introduced me to Robert Ashley. The two of them later, with Roger Reynolds, George Cacciopo, and Don Scavarda, founded the music festival called ONCE.
In Ann Arbor, “Wolgamot” became the name of a campus artistic society. Waldrop and his friends made attempts to locate Wolgamot, leading to a veritable Barthelmian detective story. Among the most interesting discoveries made by Waldrop was the fact that In Sara, Mencken, this quintessentially hapaxic text, was published twice, in two different forms. In 1943, a year prior to publication of the canonical In Sara, Mencken, Wolgamot published a slightly different version, In Sara Haardt Were Men and Women.
It was this first draft (apparently identical—printed from the same plates, even––to the 1944 official text, with the exception of a slightly larger format and a different title page) that led the Ann Arbor sleuths to Wolgamot—through a complex chain beginning with a vanity publishing house, to H.L. Mencken’s archives (Wolgamot had apparently sent his book to the Menckens, prompting the irascible American Mercury editor to call Wolgamot on the phone, demanding to know if he was crazy, to which Wolgamot replied, unperturbed: “No. I am quite sane. I just like to write that way.”), to a chance encounter in Urbana, Illinois with a friend of Wolgamot’s nephew, leading to the discovery of Wolgamot’s address, a hotel on the Upper West Side, and phone number.
At a party, Waldrop spontaneously called Wolgamot:
I called person-to-person, heard the clerk answer, and heard the operator say, “There’s a call for Mr. John Wolgamot.” And the hotel clerk said: “Wolgamot?! Is it paid for?” I hadn’t realized how late it was––I had awakened him––and I asked if he would come read his work at the University of Michigan, to which he replied, “Work? What work?” I said In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women. He said, “Ohhhh” and then, “I thought that book had died the death.” He declined our invitation. Later it became clear he didn’t believe in readings.
Of all of Waldrop’s friends who had expressed interest in this odd book, none were more moved by it than Robert Ashley. Waldrop writes that Ashley “at first glance, seemed dazzled and declared that here was the book he had always wanted to write.” Several years later, Ashley wrote to Waldrop, announcing his readiness to finally process, artistically, his encounter with In Sara, Mencken:
Soon after I came to Providence, Bob Ashley wrote from Mills College, where he had spent several years building an electronic music studio. He told me he had written no music for a long time because––his letter said––he had been purifying himself. Now, he said, “I am pure.” And ready to write his masterpiece. But the one text he had to have was lacking. The work could only be based on Wolgamot.?I sent him the text. The premiere of Ashley’s “In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women” took place in Bremen. He later performed it here and there on the West Coast. When it was scheduled for New York, it occurred to him that he had never asked Wolgamot––or anybody, except me!––for permission to use the text. The composition includes, in fact, the entire text of Wolgamot’s book…
The unveiling of Ashley’s In Sara, Mencken in various concert halls led, ultimately, to a meeting with the elusive author.
Before a performance in Southern California, a woman appeared, to ask if that title––which she had seen on a poster––might possibly refer to a book by John Barton Wolgamot. Ashley was startled, but stammered an affirmative. The woman was delighted. She revealed that, at the very time the book was being written, she had been an intimate of the author––in fact his “only confidante.” When she learned that the piece was going to New York, Bob must, she insisted, make contact with Wolgamot. She was sure Wolgamot would be pleased. Now that she thought of it, Wolgamot must already be aware, subliminally, of the piece’s existence. (This did not make Bob less nervous.) Yes––the remembrance animated her––when, just a few weeks ago, she had lunch with Wolgamot, in New York, he said (these, absolutely, his exact words) he did believe something was “in the wind.” And she, for her part, figured that he––Wolgamot––might now, “after years of self-imposed obscurity,” be “ready for a little fame.”
The prospect of meeting Wolgamot in person made Ashley very anxious. He frantically implored Waldrop to accompany him to the proposed meeting at the Little Carnegie movie house. The audience with Wolgamot, as described by Waldrop, is in extraordinary scene. We will leave things in the Little Carnegie Cinema lobby, until next time:
Ashley had done a formal analysis of the book, in an elaborate chart, showing that the book is in four movements––there was no sign of this, no markings––four movements of equal length. I was not entirely convinced. But the first thing Wolgamot said was, “You realize, this is in four movements.” And Ashley immediately brought out his chart, which Wolgamot wouldn’t look at. Just as he had no interest at all in hearing the composition.
He said it was hard to imagine reading his book out loud. “I suppose,” he said, “it would have to be a sort of”––he hesitated, considered––“well, a breathless reading.” He had written two books, he told us, and was working on a third. “My first book was a complete failure.” He had had the edition destroyed. “The second began to gallop.” And then he murmured, “But wait till you see the next.” He had been working for thirty-odd years on his third book. I asked, hesitantly, if the third would have…for text…?“ “Oh,” he said, “same text, same text.” But a brand new title page.
In 1929, Wolgamot said, he heard for the first time Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. He was bowled over. And as he listened, rapt, he heard, somehow, within the rhythms themselves, names-names that meant nothing to him, foreign names. It was these names, he realized, that created the rhythm, bearing the melody into existence. He checked out from the library a large biography of Beethoven. And in that tome, he found, one after another, all the names he had heard ringing through the symphony. And it dawned on him that, as rhythm is the basis of all things, names are the basis of rhythm. Names determine character, settle destiny…
Wolgamot decided––about 1930––to write a book. He wrote one name to a page. But he knew it could be richer. Names react to one another. He made long lists of names and held the list next to the pages of his projected book. When certain names came near each other, there was, he said, “a spark,” and that was how he knew they went together. In this way, three names gathered on each page, and then around those three clustered multitudes of names. And still something was lacking. Each page rhythmically complete, there was no impulse to go from one page to the next. There had to be a matrix, a sentence, to envelop the names. So far, he had spent a year or two composing his book. The sentence, a sentence to be repeated, more or less identically, on each page––this sentence took him ten years to write. “It’s harder than you think,” he said, “to write a sentence that doesn’t say anything.”
 Alvin Lucier, Music 109: Notes on Experimental Music (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2012), 171 (emphasis added).