Fish Boast of Fishing
Peter Knight (Listen / Hear Collective)
CD Review by Arjun von Caemmerer
1935 saw the publication of No Thanks, the 6th ‘bookofpoems’ by E.E. Cummings. His previous book of poems, is 5, published in 1926, was so far removed from best-seller status that Cummings’s overtures to publishers to consider his next collection met with serial rebuff— so much so, that these refusals resulted in the definitive title of this collection: No Thanks gets its name from its ante (& anti-) dedication to the 14 publishers who declined these poems, with their offending names collectively shaped into the semblance of a funeral urn. Cummings reserved his true thanks, presented on the final page of his publication, for his mother Rebecca Haswell Cummings, who supplied the $300 required for its private publication. And we owe her our thanks too, as this book contains the poem which forms the title for Peter Knight’s latest musical offering Fish Boast of Fishing, released on the Listen/Hear Collective label, a label dedicated to representing newly composed and created music that slips between the cracks of genres, and one that is not afraid to explore the places where those genres meet. With its championing of slips and cracks, neologisms and bending of genres, this could just as well be a manifesto for Cummings’ own idiosyncratic typography and poetry. Cummings did not just bend his typography within poems, but also throughout each collection of his poems when considered as an integral sequence: the pieces of No Thanks are arranged in a deliberate and elaborate V-shaped structure (is this perhaps an echo of is 5?), where a sonnet occurs every 3rd poem. The V’s sharp point, appropriately enough, features a poem commencing with the direction-changing phrase: into a truly curving form. In the schema of construction (Cummings’s phrase) of the 71 poems of No Thanks, Sonnet 16, which is numerically wrongsideout Poem 61, is:
love’s function is to fabricate unknownness
(known being wishless;but love,all of wishing)
though life’s lived wrongsideout,sameness chokes oneness
truth is confused with fact,fish boast of fishing
and men are caught by worms(love may not care
if time totters,light droops,all measures bend
nor marvel if a thought should weigh a star
—dreads dying least; and less,that death should end)
how lucky lovers are(whose selves abide
under whatever shall discovered be)
whose ignorant each breathing dares to hide
more than the most fabulous wisdom fears to see
(who laugh and cry)who dream,create and kill
while the whole moves;and every part stands still:
Fish Boast of Fishing nets the collective and considerable talents of 6: Peter Knight (trumpet/laptop), Adam Simmons (contrabass clarinet), Erik Griswold (prepared piano), Vanessa Tomlinson (percussion), Frank Di Sario (double bass), and Joe Talia (drum kit). I have already been fortunately bemusiked by most of these musicians on their diverse recent releases: Peter Knight (with Dung Nguyen) on Residual; Clocked Out Duo’s Erik Griswold & Vanessa Tomlinson, on Foreign Objects; and, Joe Talia on Andrea Keller’s Galumphing ‘Round The Nation.
In an illuminating and recent Insight article regarding the compositional processes underlying Residual, published on the Australian Music Centre website, Knight writes: The process begins with recorded improvisations as the raw material for a series of compositions or sound works that were developed in the studio, using the studio as a composing tool…the process of their creation inverting the usual relationship between improvisation and composition in that the compositional process happens in response to the improvised moment rather than the other way around.
In regard to the use of the laptop as instrument he writes: I listen and respond to that which I hear. I chop sounds up, move them around, delete them and often just leave them be. It is a process that I imagine is not dissimilar to painting, and I often think of it like that – it’s a process of moving sound around, looking/listening for a sense of ‘rightness’. So it is not surprising that Knight is in such sympathy with Cummings, as the poet was also a painter: the jacket cover of my edition of Cummings Complete Poems 1904-1962 reproduces his 1925 oil painting Noise Number 13, whose title suggests at least a passing regard for some of the music then contemporary, such as, perhaps, Antheil’s ‘machine music’.
While the wash & wake of the laptop’s sounds (today’s ‘machine music’?), are uniquely their own, the hum, buzz, & electric crackle coalesce at times into the sounds of the everyday — on the title track alone these variously evoke the pregnant static of a gramophone speaker, continuing when the record ends; the calls of frog & cricket, cat & bird; airplane & train; far-off thunder; breath & rain.
Amongst the 6 featured pieces on this disc (Fish Boast of Fishing, Unknowness 1, Short 1, And Men Are Caught By Worms, Unknowness 2, Short 2) there is a clearly discernable structural arrangement which echoes the deliberate internal alternating current of No Thanks: the 6 tracks divide symmetrically into 2 groups of 3, each half commencing with a title named from the split phrase of the poem, finishing with the descriptively-named improvisation, Short, and hinging centrally and significantly on Unknowness. In the foreword to is 5 Cummings writes: If a poet is anybody, he is somebody to whom things made matter very little — somebody who is obsessed by Making. In No Thanks’s sonnetpoem 16/61 he reiterates the centrality of this Making, but here especially in relation to that which he finds most fundamentally mysterious and binding — love — where wishing, dreaming, discovering, creating, killing — each and all — fabricate unknownness. Cummings’s choice of the word fabricate deliberately carries a dual meaning: that of true creation, and simultaneously, the construction of something with a core of elusive artifice, thereby maintaining, just like his poem does, a kernel of unknowability, of unknownness in unknownness, not dissimilar to ‘i’, in its mathematical imaginary-number sense. And to approach listening to Knight’s music, where improvisation is knotted right into the heart of the compositions, we should first hearken back to Cummings:
since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you
Speaking of syntax, it is an intriguing matter that Cummings’s unknownness mutates in Knight’s titles to Unknowness. The subtle difference in spelling and meaning of these two words is analogous to the proximity and inseparability of the interlocked processes of composition and improvisation in Knight’s music: there is still a distinction, but it is very difficult, especially on listening to this music, to define their boundaries, their differences. Yet, at the same time, sameness chokes oneness writes Cummings, and on each track, every part stands, the heterogeneity of each piece and each contributor whose selves abide clearly apparent in their distinct voices, which, integrated throughout the whole moves of the complete Suite, become successfully incorporated into that which is whole, and therefore one.
An early part of the title track hinges on a sound like a squeaking gate (possibly Di Sario bowing high on his bass) a sound, which, swinging to and fro in the crackling electrostatic sound-fields of Knight’s laptop, introduces the divergent temporal and spatial territories of this music where all measures bend: music of entering and leaving; of the familiar & foreign; of opening and enclosing; of encountering movement & resistance. Where music is conceived of and executed as a Suite, as on this CD, the isolation of the elements which variously contribute to it can do no more than point to some of the facets which gleam. There is, nonetheless, much to appreciate in the particulars of this music: in the longest composition, Fish Boast of Fishing, the fluid & pointillist punctuations of Griswold’s prepared piano which preface Knight’s plangent explication of Aloneness, where trumpet plays against its own echo, and following, the delicacy of Tomlinson’s smattering, filigreed percussion on her found objects of metal and glass; in Unknowness 1, Di Sario’s bass, pulsing beneath Simmons’s and Knight’s sinuous braided entwinements, with the organic variations in sound, rate, and rhythm of the human heart; in Short 1, again Di Sario, in a open seamed song of the sea-bass; And Men Are Caught By Worms, the obverse of the title track, squirms with the wriggle and writhe of this living ensemble, as Simmons, snagged in the reeds, slap-tongues, chunneling his way out; on Unknowness 2, the ever-shifting surfaces of Tomlinson’s Chladni-plate patterns; and on Short 2, Griswold and Simmons, taking it in turns, carry, finally, everything home.
It is well known that doctors after encountering a rare condition often become temporarily more sensitized to its possibility, and are therefore more likely to over-diagnose this on subsequent encounters. and men are caught by worms writes Cummings, and so sing Knight and Co., and after listening to this music I began to suddenly encounter worms from other musical dimensions, and not the ear-worms of unwelcome and too-easily imprinted music: Zappa’s Synclavier composition Worms From Hell, machine music recently literally unearthed, arrived unexpectedly the same month that I received Fish Boast of Fishing, and then, like the spheres themselves, the music of the worms turned again and sang out at me from the pages of the book which I happened one evening to be reading to my daughter. Perhaps its title should have forewarned.
Oskar, talking with Ida:
‘I don’t know what we expect in this darkness. Even if there were a parliament of badgers, we shouldn’t see it. We’d only hear the barks and squeaks. The thing is to listen. We might hear a litany of worms. Their noses would be as thin as blades of grass, and they would sway from side to side in supplication. We shouldn’t see them of course.’
‘What do you imagine worms would sound like?’
‘Like wind through a keyhole.’
Thus are we caught by worms and by words, and if music is love, then caught also by love, and so, by transmutation. Hence, A Little Knight-Music, in words just 6:
music’s function is to fabricate unknownness:
 Insight: Residual by Peter Knight and Dung Nguyen (Quoted with permission)
Peter Knight (trumpet)
Adam Simmons (contrabass clarinet)
Erik Griswold (prepared piano)
Vanessa Tomlinson (percussion)
Frank Di Sario (double bass)
Joe Talia (drum kit)