a future music moves now
to be written
w g r & t
its form is not apparent
it will be seen
- bpNichol, The Martyrology, Book 1
bpNichol's taste in music was eclectic, his love of it abiding,
his appetite for it inexhaustible, his knowledge of it broad and
deep. He was familiar equally with jazz from its roots through to
its latest developments, with the range of pop musics from the
twenties to the eighties, with Broadway and film musicals, and
with the works of contemporary composers. He was as eager to
attend a performance of a Stockhausen work as to go to an
Ornette Coleman concert, a Tony Bennett show, or a Rod Stewart
rock-up. The pleasure he derived from music was genuine and
unaffected, the interest he maintained in it deep and earnest. A
pervasive presence in his personal life, it was no less so in his
artistic life, where it found expression in three areas of creative
output - in his published poetry and prose, in his sound poetry,
and in his collaborations with composers. The works in the
latter area remain, for several reasons, little-known, and his
print and sound work have not really been examined within
any musical context.
Before examining the musical sensibilities that operate in
Nichol's work, a few general remarks on his esthetic orientation are
in order. Central to Nichol's approach to writing was an exploration
of the multi-sensual potential of language. As print, it is a visual
experience and he eagerly exploited that aspect of it, not just in his
visual poetry (treating language as a graphic phenomenon), with
which he made himself an early international reputation, but in his
arrangement of text generally. The very way in which he presented
his name (bpNichol) derived from a visual esthetic. He extended the
visual aspect into the tactile, designing three-dimensional visual
poems that were executed in fabric (a tapestry, some cushions,
thread-and-paper) by his wife, Ellie. The sonic dimension of language
was no less featured in Nichol's work, most obviously in his sound
poetry, but also in his textual writing. (Although text might be
incorporated, in varying degrees, in visual and sound works, "textual" is
the adjective I prefer, for numerous reasons, to such ones
as "conventional" or "traditional" when referring to the kind of
writing generally associated with the kind of reading commonly
It's no accident that Nichol's first major publication (bp,
Coach House Press, 1967) was a slipcased compilation containing
a bound book of poems, a packet of letter-based visuals
(titled "Letters Home") that included a die-cut
silver-coated type-sculpture in the shape of his lower-case first two
initials, and a 7" 33 1/3 recording of sound poems (titled "Borders").
If the message wasn't clear from the contents, the cover copy spelt it out:
now that ... people have finally come to see that language
means communication and that communication does not just
mean language, we have come up against the problem, the
actual fact, of diversification, of finding as many exits as possible
from the self (language/communication exits) in order to form as
many entrances as possible for the other ... if his [the poet's] need
is to touch you physically he creates a poem/object for you to
touch and is not a sculptor for he is still moved by the language
and sculpts with words - he comes at his art from an entirely
different angle and brings to it different concerns and yet similar
ones, but he is a poet always - I place myself there, with them,
whoever they are, wherever they are, who seek to reach themselves
and the other thru the poem by as many exits and entrances
as are possible.
Proclaimed at the outset of his career, these were principles to which
Nichol remained true throughout it, not just by creating individual
poems geared specifically to the eye or the ear, but by integrating visual and
aural elements in his textual writing, both prose and poetry. Of the sonic
exits / entrances that Nichol explored through poetry, music was a principal
one, and while it figured extensively in his textual work as a whole, the
nature and range of his use of it is well-evidenced in his multi-volume
poem, The Martyrology (Coach House Press, 1972-1987), so I will
focus mainly on that work to illustrate how his musical sensibilities
entered into his textual writing.
The Martyrology was an ongoing work, of which six
books were published at the time of Nichol's death in 1988, with three more
appearing in two posthumous volumes. Within The Martyrology's
constantly evolving and increasingly complex form, Nichol worked his
themes of personal, familial and racial history, myth, society,
language, and the relationship between self and other. Among other
things, The Martyrology served as a framework for Nichol's
progressively radical experiments with technique - not that he wasn't
moving on that front in his shorter works. Nichol referred to The
Martyrology's macrostructure in musical terms in a conversation with
writers Daphne Marlatt and George Bowering in the literary journal Line
(No. 6, Fall, 1985):
... the middle of Book 3, I got really fed up because it
seemed that its structure was like nineteenth-century classical
music. It was borrowing from symphonic structure. I don't even
like nineteenth-century classical music ... What I wanted was a
sound that was more, to my point of view, contemporary. I
wanted, you know, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, I wanted
Ornette Coleman, I wanted M. Kagel, that sort of thing. That's
really what pushed me to get away from the long, sonorous line
I was using in Book 3, which kind of reaches a real
crescendo there, and then in Book 4 it just breaks
In a subsequent issue of Line (No. 10, Spring, 1988), which
was devoted entirely to papers on The Martyrology, Nichol
A record that absolutely influenced my writing was Ornette
Coleman's Free Jazz [Atlantic 1364, 1960] ... it really
cleaned my ears and made me rethink the whole notion of what was
possible in improvisation ... one of the main compositional
principles i've always used in The M. is exactly that: the
notion that i'm improvising. I'd been impressed by Kerouac's
sentences and the notion that a line of writing could be like a
saxophone solo. Ornette Coleman's saxophone solos showed
me the kind of writing i was interested in achieving … i was
influenced ... by the internal logic of the solos of Ornette
Coleman (and other jazz saxophonists ...)
Here's a sample, from about the middle of Book 3 (that point
of disenchantment), of the kind of nineteenth-century sonority Nichol
became fed up with:
the city outlives us all the we
For the uninitiated, a brief note on that third last line: readers of The
Martyrology gradually realize that the saints referred to in the books
are ones of Nichol's own invention, their names formed by words beginning
with "st"; thus we meet saint and (st. and), saint ump (st. ump),
saint ranglehold (st. ranglehold), etc. With that established, here's a
sample, from Book 5, of the more contemporary, highly
improvisatory breaking-apart that informs so much of the later books:
we talk as if it were the enemy
as we use the word american derogatorily
meaning `that bastard from the united states'
we lack any sense of real community
define ourselves in terms of what we don't want to be
give the symptoms the control
talk about our helplessness
as saint and did
played that game of distances
never wanting to get close
u 'n a me
In the first of the two examples cited, the sonorous element
Nichol referred to is incorporated in the complete syntax
(read "anticipated chord progression"), the regulated rhythm of the
phrasing (read "set time-signature"), and the leisurely fluidity of idea in
the content (read "easy melody"). However unsettling the content (a
challenging of bigotry and complacency, of societal whining and
hypocrisy), the form is comfortable, relatively predictable, almost
reassuring. But the second passage is none of these. Its syntax is
incomplete, irregular ("The word is art, not am art, and
certainly not `m art,"' cries the conventional soul). Its rhythm is jarring,
shifts without warning. And the content - well, that takes some thinking.
The content of the two passages, in fact, is related. Both have to do
with naming: the first of "the other," with hostility and without
compromise; the second of "the self," a little hesitantly at first ("a
me," not "me"), then with increasing self-assertion ("my me"), and
with a final, mature self-questioning ("but what is it exactly comes
together"). Let's look at a few other features of this second passage.
As Coleman might begin a melodic phrase and take it apart to complete
it, so Nichol begins a verbal statement ("in the word mart …") and
takes it apart to complete it ("the word m art"). Contrarily, as Coleman
might scatter notes of an otherwise cohesive melodic nature, so Nichol
scatters the phonemes of an otherwise coherent word ("martyrology"
becomes "m art / yr ology"). Then too, there's the common jazz device
of quoting from a familiar melody and developing it tangentially,
which Nichol parallels linguistically by alluding to the well-known
Charlie Parker tune, "Ornithology," which title he alters (kind of
like inverting a chord) into "horn it," then "Ornette," and ends
by breaking the musician's surname into phonemic components
(read "notes") to honour Coleman with the designation "C.O."
(Commanding Officer), in the next breath paying homage to
Coleman's predecessor on sax, Charlie "Bird" Parker, who is "le
man" (i.e., "the man," a term in American black slang indicating
a position of authority, from God on down) - with the felicitous
echo in the word "bird" of the earlier mentioned "ornithology,"
all the more appropriate since Bird's momentous innovation was
the inversion of chords in standard melodies, just as Nichol inverted
the "h" in "ornith" of "ornithology" to arrive at "horn it" and,
ultimately, at Parker's name. The sequence of associations is complex,
subtle, richly suggestive, and moves exquisitely (as well as being
exquisitely moving) within the passage's highly disciplined internal
logic (that element Nichol so admired in Coleman's solos).
u name me
`i forget you'
i name me anew
claim my signs
m a r t
in the word mart
the word m art
like some old bop phrase haunts my dreams
Ornette Coleman C.O.
le man is bird or parker
b o p
but what is it exactly comes together
Some of the other ways in which music enters into Nichol's textual
writing are less oblique. Throughout his oeuvre, pop- song lyrics
recur and, judging from Nichol's treatment of them in public
readings, he intends the melody to be heard, if only in the reader's
head. These pop-song quotes usually occur as fragments arising
in the associative flow of the poetry. For instance, in The
Martyrology, Book 6, reflecting on the birth of his daughter,
he writes "when the selves merge / a new self emerges / we / 'three
are not alone'," in which passage the "three are not alone" would
be sung to the appropriate portion of the melody of the
Inkspots' "My Echo, My Shadow and Me." Elsewhere
in Book 6 he inserts original lyrics of a C&W-style
love-song to his wife, obligingly supplying notation of the
melody. This notation (and other musical notations that occur
in Book 6) would have been provided by someone else,
for Nichol's talent for composing melodies was not complemented
by notational skills in the conventional sense. I say "in the
conventional sense" because he did establish in Book 5 a
singular compositional and notational system for melody. Having
already devised a means of using text to generate text - by
breaking up the words of a previously composed passage to
create new combinations, new possibilities, new sense, and,
often enough, new nonverbal sounds (an example of the results
is the text employed in Figure 1) - he set about coming up
with a system for using text to generate melody (the results of
which are also illustrated in Figure 1). This he achieved by
writing a text on a musical staff in such a way that when a
letter in the text was the name of a note, the text moved to
the line or space corresponding to that note, remaining on that
line or space until the next note-name letter occurred. An
example would be to take the phrase "an example would be":
the text would begin in the position of A for "an," shift up or
down to E for the "ex" of the word "example," move back to
A for the middle four letters of "example" and back to E for
that word's final letter, staying there for "woul" and moving to
D at the end of that word, rising to B at the start of "be" and
moving immediately to E for its ending. Duration is determined
by the length of the text that occurs at any given pitch. Ligatures
are used when pitch-changes occur within any single word.
The system was inspired by a technique employed by the
American poet Jackson Mac Low, who had for some time been
using note-name letters as indicators of pitch in his performances.
Nichol's development was a stroke of originality that generated a
music sounding somewhat reminiscent of Gregorian chant - or
should I say, given its aleatoric basis, Gregorian chance?
Before leaving Nichol's textual writing and discussing his
sound poetry, I think it worth emphasising that The
Martyrology is only one of Nichol's textual works that
make use of musical elements. In Love: A Book of
Remembrances (Talonbooks, 1974), he gives to single
letters the metric and prosodic weight usually accorded
words, so that they become like individual notes in a verbal
music. In his prose works, such as Journal (Coach
House Press, 1978), there is a clearly evident sense of language
as music. Once, when asked whether he still read Gertrude Stein
(perhaps his favourite writer and a major influence on his own
writing), he replied "Ah yeah! I just lift something off the
shelf and start anywhere. It's like listening to a favourite music."
Sound poetry is one genre that, by its very nature, affords a
plenitude of musical exits/entrances and Nichol employed
them to the full in his work in that area. Sound poetry, in its
mid- to late-twentieth century manifestations, is based in the
traditions of ethnopoetics, of nonsense verse, and in dadaist and
futurist poetics. Many of its practitioners over the last forty
years have drawn on the resources of magnetic tape technology
to expand and develop the discipline. Nichol's introduction to
sound poetry, as recounted in a 1987 radio interview with
Richard Truhlar, occurred in the early '60s through reading
about the Dadaists, hearing Michael McClure's reading of
his Ghost Tantras, and attending early performances by
bill bissett, who, as Nichol pointed out, was at that time working
more with silences than sounds. Nichol, throughout his career,
made use in his sound poetry of verbal chant, nonverbal vocal
noise, speech-based colourings and rhythms, melodic invention,
and melodic borrowing. This latter element set him apart from
most of his colleagues, few of whom considered a sudden
impassioned rendering of "Blue Moon" or "The Breeze and I" to
be consistent with the radical poetics they espoused. Nichol's
first sound compositions were acoustic, but when he gained
access to a recording studio for the preparation of the "Borders"
disc included in Journeying & the Returns, he became
interested in the possibilities of tape and soon made use of a
friend's tape recorder to create electroacoustic pieces. Nichol
spoke of this work in the interview with Truhlar:
I was doing this at the time - and so, in fact, was Dave
UU [pronounced "double-u"]: we were really using the
tape-recorder like how you would now use a synthesizer
keyboard, which is to say a lot of the sort of very, y'know,
duhn-duhn-duhn pulses that you get and that, are
simply because we were doing very fast speed-reversals
on the tape while working with our voices at the same
time, so we were literally using the buttons to create
rhythmic patterns within the sounds as we used them.
There's also a clock in there that I was using [referring to
the piece "Another Day Older," which Truhlar had just
played] ... There's almost no voice in the piece. I set up a
feedback system and then through manipulating the keys,
as we would say, on the tape recorder, that's how all the
sound is generated ... To me, that's the best piece from
that whole period.
The nature and timing of this work (around 1968) places
Nichol and UU among the earliest of Canadian electroacoustic
Composers - and possibly establishes them as the first ones outside
of the institutional and academic environments. (Although
independent individuals in Europe - poet Henri Chopin, for one - had
been doing similar work for some years, it is almost certain that
Nichol had not heard these works and very unlikely that he had read
of them.) Nichol's next access to a recording studio was to prepare
his LP Motherlove (Allied Records, 1968) and there are
further electroacoustic works included there. Not all of the
electroacoustic work Nichol did in this period was released. There
were plans afoot before his death to make the unreleased works
available, but after eight years, nothing has yet come of those plans.
Nichol spoke (again, in the interview with Truhlar) of having
made plans to study with composer Ann Southam after his first
sorties into electroacoustics. He decided against this, however, partly
because of time constraints and partly because he felt he should
further explore pure voice. He eventually moved so far away from
electronic enhancement of the voice that he even refused, for several
years, to use microphones in live performance (up until 1970 he had
rarely done sound poetry without amplification). It was, in fact, shortly
after the first performance of The Four Horsemen, in May 1970, that
Nichol made this decision, and the other members of the group (Rafael
Barreto-Rivera, Steve McCaffery, and myself) were in accord.
Although Nichol continued to compose solo sound poems after
The Four Horsemen formed and had, at the time of his death, plans for
more solo work, including a return to electronic effects, the group
remained his main vehicle for sound poetry from 1970 on. To fully
discuss the musical aspect of Nichol's work with The Horsemen would
require a separate essay of equal length to this, but I would like to touch
on one relevant matter, which is scoring. Notation was an ongoing concern
of Nichol's (he edited an issue of a literary-theory journal, Open
Letter [Series 6, No. 1: Spring, 1985], on the subject) and in many
of the poems that he composed for the group he made use of optophonetic
scoring. The technique, which the dadaist Raoul Hausmann used for his
sound poems, is a fairly loose one, by which the phonemes of the poem are
presented in a typographic and/or hand-written form suggestive of timbre,
intensity, and rhythm, usually with graphic indicators, the whole score
generally receiving a subjective interpretation by the reader. For instance,
a small fat "e" might be read at a low volume on a low pitch, a wavy line
encircling it could be taken as a cue to sustain the phoneme with a
tremolo; an "a" with a spiral line giving off it might suggest to the reader
a siren effect on that vowel; a sequence of small "d"s could be read as a
tongue-roll; and so on. All of this suited the highly improvisatory character
of The Four Horsemen. For certain types of pieces Nichol adapted a
technique learned from Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz LP, on which a
brief "head" (the jazz term for a musical passage serving as a refrain or
main theme) was used as a point of cohesion, after which the players
moved into designated solos and free improvisation. (Free Jazz
was such a favourite of Nichol's that he sometimes took a cassette dub
of it on his travels.) He applied the method to sound poetry notation for
The Horsemen by creating a grid with a horizontal line for each voice,
indicating the head by placing it on a vertical line. The head might call
for unison ensemble or for varied effects from each performer. The solo
or collective improvisatory passages would be free within the phonemes
provided and, on occasion, within verbally defined limits. For such a
score to succeed, the performers must share closely attuned
sensibilities, highly developed listening skills, and an ability to respond
sensitively to rhythms, dynamics, and timbres - just like improvising
musicians, and with a like capacity for thinking on your feet ...
although "feeling" and "responding" are perhaps more relevant terms
than "thinking." The most relevant term, in fact, is "collaboration"
and that is a concept that loomed large in the creative life of bpNichol.
Nichol was an enthusiastic collaborator with artists from several
Disciplines - fellow-writers, visual artists, musicians - and in
numerous genres: theoretical writing, sound poetry, fiction,
comic-books, painting, sculpture, crafts, jazz, free-improv, musical
theatre, and concert-hall composition—to name the ones that spring
immediately to mind. One musician with whom Nichol collaborated in
performance is Casey Sokol, a pianist as skilled in jazz and classical
interpretation as in the spontaneous composition of free improvisation.
The evening of duets that they presented at Toronto's Music Gallery in
1984, which was preceded by discussions of the concepts and shapes of
the pieces, rather than by rehearsals as such, offers a good example of
how Nichol worked in this mode.
The piano is an instrument possessing few textural
characteristics that complement voice improvisation, unlike string or
wood instruments, for example, which are richly suggestive of the kinds
of vocal effects that sound poets specialize in. Sokol overcame the
limitation, for some of the numbers, by preparing the piano, and for
others, by the use of string-plucking, string-tremolo (brushing across the
wires), and various percussive effects. Nichol, for his part, exercised great
inventiveness in producing compatible sounds, so that rarely do the
pieces take the form of voice with piano accompaniment. The effect is
very much of two instruments, with ensemble sections,
background/foreground effects, rhythmic or melodic counterpointing,
and mutual development or phraseological commentary on each other's
ideas. This is particularly true of one piece with so distinctive a bop feel
that its title, "Free Bop," is almost redundant. (It is perhaps worth
clarifying that, throughout the program, Nichol relies very little on
words, and ranges far and wide in his free-voice invention.) Sokol,
in a recent conversation, spoke of Nichol as using his voice like an
... when I played with him there was always so much
available in the sort of syntactic sense, where musical syntax
and linguistic syntax form this other sort of netherworld, like
a sort of meta-syntax, and that's where we played ... He had
the capacity to kind of unhook from linguistic demands,
although he could always make use of things such as the
suggestions offered by a phoneme ... It's not governed by
pitch and harmony and colour, in the way that most music
is, but it's some understanding of flow and that's why I felt
peculiarly comfortable with him.
One piece in which Nichol does make extensive use of words
and linguistic syntax is "Walkin'," wherein he repeatedly utters the
phrase "I was walkin' down the street," gradually introducing slight
variations in the phrase and the phrasing, in speech intonation and
dynamics. Sokol has expressed his reservations about this on esthetic
grounds, but adds that "on the other hand, from a practical point of
view, it's ideal for musical collaboration because you know that
you're never for want of an ostinato or whatever you want to call
it - background/foreground texture, that is." Neither the vocal nor the
pianistic effects are static in this piece. Sokol builds hasty arpeggios
and staccatos as Nichol's insistent repetition progresses and when
Nichol's volume diminishes Sokol's piano shifts to sustained single
notes, then fades to hovering overtones behind Nichol's almost
inaudible whisper, from which a mutual crescendo develops, with a
final fade concluding the piece. It is a simple but satisfying structure
for a work in which nothing of great moment occurs either lyrically
or musically, but which leaves the listener in the same kind of pleasant
frame of mind that might derive from an aimless stroll.
Work with composers formed a large part of Nichol's
collaborative output. I have written elsewhere in some detail about his
first four full-length works for musical theatre ("Confronting
Conventions: The Musical/Dramatic Works of bpNichol," Open
Letter, Sixth Series, Nos. 5-6, 1986). He had, at the time, done
one shorter work, and subsequently completed a second shorter work
and the libretti for two more full-length ones, for which the scores
were completed after Nichol's death. In addition, he also worked with
R. Murray Schafer on Schafer's Apocalypsis, Princess of the Stars,
and the "Wizard Oil and Indian Sagwa" act from The Greatest
Show, but his function in these pieces was primarily interpretive,
his creative input coming into play in fine-tuning the roles and in
realizing their chant and free-voice potentials.
Nichol's first venture into musical theatre was Group, a
musical comedy in two acts, with music by Nelles Van Loon, mounted
in an amateur production in Toronto in 1980. Nichol kept pretty much
to the standard form of the musical in this work, although the content –
with all the action taking place in a therapeutic group - isn't what
you'd want to call mainstream. Group is characteristic of almost all
of Nichol's collaborations with composers (in fact, of all his work,
period) in its thematic concern with language as both a communication
tool (exits/ entrances to the self and the other) and as a phenomenon in
itself (like a kind of music) - not that language is by any means the only
thematic concern in Group or any of the other musical-theatre
works. Group is anomalous in his work with composers in that
the bulk of the songs employ melodies of his own creation. Van Loon
transcribed and arranged most of them, modified others, and contributed
the whole of the music for one, "Let Love Lead You," which is among
the several very strong songs in the show, both in lyric and melody.
Composer Howie Gerhard, who worked with Nichol on two subsequent
projects, recalls that Nichol's rendering of his melodies for the songs
in Group was identical on every occasion - not just the same
phrasing, rhythm, and inflection, but the same key. Van Loon
corroborates this, with the remark that Nichol had "a very accurate
Nichol followed Group with another work in which
his pop- music lore came into play, but which also provided him
some scope for more of his voice-as-pure-sound concerns. This
was Mating Time, a twelve-minute piece commissioned from
John Beckwith by the CBC for broadcast in 1981, and for which
Beckwith chose Nichol as collaborator. The broadcast was preceded
by an interview with Nichol and Beckwith, in which Nichol spoke of
collaboration as "a matter, I suppose, of permissions." He also spoke
of his preliminary discussions with Beckwith of the "sonic space" the
composer had in mind. Together, they came up with a sonic space
wherein a 20-voice choir, using hand-held percussive instruments
and accompanied by electric keyboard, blended vocal imitations of
animal mating calls, some characteristic Nichol text-play with
idiomatic phrases that incorporate the word "heart," a wealth of
allusion to the canon of pop-song literature ("the pop song as mating
call," Beckwith called it in a recent conversation), and, in one section,
a sort of heart-beat continuum, achieved by having part of the chorus
do a throat-located "lub-dup," an effect that Steve McCaffery had
introduced into a Four Horsemen piece and which Nichol borrowed
here to excellent effect. Beckwith recalls that Nichol brought to the
planning discussions a ream of obscure '20s and '30s pop-song sheet-
music, which the two pored over, and he refers to one section of the
piece as "a virtual tribute to Gershwin." Both collaborators backed up
their work with extensive research on mating calls in the animal
kingdom. Together they created a piece that combines text, texture,
melody, and accompaniment in a kind of grand valentine to the
world at large.
It was another world that Nichol moved to with his next
musical-dramatic collaborator, Howie Gerhard (sequence, in all of
this discussion, is not precise, since the works were created in
temporal overlaps). Space Opera takes place on the planet
Galdon, where communication is legislatively enforced as song,
not speech (Nichol's resolution of a personal difficulty with the
operatic convention of having everybody sing all the time). The
device affords Nichol an opportunity to work in some sound-poetry
in the context of a minority group, cast in the score as sound-poets,
who have achieved their right to express themselves in a mode
halfway between song and speech. In this work, as in all such
others except Group, Nichol adhered strictly to the role of
text- supplier, leaving the determination of all melody to the
composer and, apart from a few general directives, allowing the
sound-poets free rein in their interpretation of the parts written
for them. Workshopped by Toronto's Comus Theatre in 1985,
some several years after its composition, Space Opera
remains in a kind of limbo, requiring (as both writer and
composer agreed) some refinements before going public.
Nichol's death need in no way impede the work's ultimate
production, but its fate remains in doubt.
The fate of Tracks, which Nichol co-wrote with
playwright Mary Barton, is, on the other hand, pretty well
determined. Don't expect to see it. Produced in the Ontario town
of Cobourg for that community's Lakeshore Summer Festival in
1983, this musical was commissioned with the proviso that it
incorporate elements of the town's history, a factor that apparently
proved a drag on the otherwise splendid abilities of the co-writers
(both have done better, several times over). Philip Schaus, who
provided the musical setting for the song-lyrics, seems, in this
work, to be undecided whether to follow in the footsteps of
Gershwin or of Weill, arriving on unsatisfactory ground somewhere
between the two. The whole enterprise, aside from speculation about
what might have resulted had Nichol provided the melodies for the
songs, is best forgotten.
But there is no reason to forget The Gargoyle; and its
creation, inspired by an account of a 1920s' Cobourg murder- case
that Nichol came across in researching Tracks, is justification enough
for the perpetration of that earlier work. His musical collaborator was
again Schaus, whose talents were better served by (and served better)
the impressionistic elements that Nichol introduced into his book for
this work. One musical challenge that Nichol offers to Schaus is
something I have termed "the private duet, trio, or quartet," wherein
two or more characters sing simultaneously about thoughts or feelings
not divulged to the other(s), with whom melody and some lyrics are
shared. Such songs, as duets, are not uncommon in musical theatre,
though there are few that extend it to the trio structure (the "To sit
in solemn silence" trio from Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado
comes to mind) and none that I know of that go so far as a quartet.
Schaus proves equal to the task Nichol sets him and the "Conversations"
song from The Gargoyle remains one of the most memorable
of Nichol's lyricist-composer collaborations. The Gargoyle
premiered in Cobourg's 1985 Lakeshore Summer Festival and
deserves production in a context that would offer it to a larger audience.
In 1985, Nichol's second and, sadly, last collaboration with
John Beckwith, Avowals, scored for tenor and keyboards,
was premiered at Classical Cabaret in the University of Toronto's
George Ignatieff Theatre. The piece is a delight from beginning to end
of its nine minutes. In it, a pop-song singer moves back and forth between
two spots on the stage, in one of which (designated "Performance Area"
in the score) he performs fragments of his stage-show and in the other of
which (designated "Backstage") he reflects on his personal life. The
piece opens with the smiling singer in the Performance Area, concluding
a song with the climactically sung "--you!" He thereafter moves back
and forth between the two areas, and speech-modulated passages,
expressive of doubts, hesitations, and ambiguities around his lover,
occur "Backstage," while cliche-ridden pop-song certainties are sung
about in the "Performance Area." Within this structure "I" and "You"
subtly shift to "i" and "u" and the piece ends with a singing of the rest
of the vowels, which have gradually crept into the text as the piece has
progressed. The work, both musically and lyrically, is witty,
ambiguous and richly suggestive - not least of all in the treatment, by
Nichol, of letters (those building-blocks of poetry) as notes. Avowals,
through Nichol's and Beckwith's combined efforts, provides ringing
testimony to a faith in speech as music and music as speech.
The interplay between speech and music that pervades
Nichol's work with composers - and, arguably, his work as a
Whole - figures prominently in his last two such collaborations,
Ad Sanctos (The Martyrology, Book 9), with Howie
Gerhard, and Meme, with David Mott, both of which have scores
in progress, with texts in final draft. Gerhard is confident of eventual
production of Ad Sanctos, and Meme is slated for
performance at Toronto's Music Gallery in the spring of 1990.
Ad Sanctos is termed "A Choral Performance
Work," but is actually that and more. Nichol's plan, which it is hoped
will be carried out, was not only to mount a production, but also to
publish a book-and-record package. Nichol's ubiquitous theme of
language is prominent in the work, along with others central to
The Martyrology, such as community, religion, and myth.
The cast of characters, which is the a capella chorus, includes some
of the previously encountered saints, plus Reader, Writer, We,
They, and other pronominal characters, one of whom is You, whose
part is neither scored nor mandatory: there are simply portions of the
text and score where openings are available for You. With this
device, Nichol has provided a singular entrance for the other, the
unmet collaborator in any work of art. It should be noted that
Nichol intended the book in the book-and-record version
of Ad Sanctos to be the scored text. Given that this plan is
carried through, The Martyrology's closing volume (though
it was not thought that it would conclude the work, Nichol having
had plans for further books) will be a fusion of speech and music,
a fitting conclusion to a literary work in which the author's musical
sensibility plays so large a part.
Meme, in three acts, is subtitled "A Nopera" and
calls for two male and two female poets (sound poets, actually),
two solo singers, three dancers, a choir, a marching band and an
electronic ensemble. The language the poets speak is one of
Nichol's own invention, comprising a limited vocabulary of eleven
root words, with various prefixes and suffixes of a mainly
prepositional nature. The words, which signify a few objects and
elements in nature, some personal pronouns, and a few basic
emotional states, serve the purposes of the simple drama that
gradually unfolds. The choir, which functions as a Greek chorus,
mixes English with the language Nichol invented. The script
for Meme contains a text that is read repeatedly by a
character called The Dreamer, and Mott informs me that he and
Nichol here consciously followed the lead of Luciano Berio,
who used a similar device in his Symphonia, a work they
were both familiar with. A singular feature of Meme, in
relation to Nichol's other musical-dramatic collaborations, is his
optophonetic scoring for some of the sound poetry. For the rest of
this work, and in those others where sound poetry is scripted,
Nichol primarily did just that: scripted. This meant, perforce, that
he established some rhythmic aspects and chant-indicative
repetitions, but for the most part the character of the sound was
left to the composer to determine.
The quotation used as epigraph for this essay is taken,
as noted, from The Martyrology, Book 1. The passage
which comprises it was, in fact, included in that work's first
edition on a pamphlet enclosed with the book and was only
incorporated into the book proper in its second edition. Nichol
actually composed the passage after the completion of Book 3
and I recall his mentioning it to me at the time, with some
excitement, in relation to the stylistic shift that he anticipated
for Book 4 and which, as it proved, continued and
developed through the later books - and through his writing in
general. The "future music" he left with us is of a rich and
satisfying character. The enjoyment of it leads me to speculate
on what inspired future music he might have generated for us
had not all his areas of individual and collaborative endeavour
been so sadly shortened.
[Note: Readers interested in hearing NIchol's solo sound poetry
will find it available on a cassette, Ear Rational: Sound Poems
1970-80 (New Fire Tapes / Membrane Press, Milwaukee,
1982), available in Canada from Underwhich Editions, P.O. Box
262, Adelaide St. Station, Toronto, Ontario, M5C 2J4. A
comprehensive bibliography and sonography of his works up
to 1986 can be found in Read the Way He Writes: A
Festschrift for bpNichol, (Open Letter, Series 6, Nos. 5-6:
England, early summer, 2002. I'm in London to perform with CCMC, the free improvising trio with which I oralize (some call it singing, some call it sound poetry; I call it oralizing - or soundsinging). The festival we're playing in couldn't afford hotel rooms for the week-long period needed to secure an airfare price the festival could afford, so we're on our own for accommodations, and I'm staying at Bob Cobbing's. Fact is, I'd probably be staying at Bob's anyway, because … well, that's where I stay when I'm in London, especially since my reason for going there usually has to do with Bob: a reading he's arranged for me, or simply a visit with him.
It's not quite five-star accommodation at Bob's. I contend for space with a photocopier (Bob's principal working tool for both his artistic output and literary publishing); with sundry cartons and boxes; with a chest of wide, shallow drawers, the top of which bears a paper-cutter surrounded by a proliferation of papers; and with various boards and vinyl-covered hardware of uncertain character and indeterminate function (each, though, I'm sure, with their proper place and role in Bob's work universe); all hemmed in by shelving units along the walls and down half the middle of the room, every unit crammed with boxes and paper stock; with publications and / or material for publications of Writers Forum, the imprint Bob used for what poet Lawrence Upton has pegged at "almost 1400 titles, about one title a fortnight for half a century." (Some of those titles might consist of only four or eight pages, but still …) Somewhere down behind one of those metal shelving units is a daunting conglomeration of boxes and knick-knacks, of small percussion instruments and various unidentifiables, none of which I've investigated or asked about, and most of which appear virtually undisturbed from visit to visit over some fifteen years, during which the room's basic geography has remained the same, with shifting topographic details, and the occasional tectonic plate adjustment.
Amidst all this mass and clutter, I have a modicum of space. "I managed to dig out a hole for you," Bob commented on one occasion, with a characteristic kind of wry cheerfulness, as he ushered me into my quarters. The hole he has on several occasions dug out for me is sufficient for a narrow foam mattress on the heavy-felt-tiled concrete floor (somewhere along the line, I chose to abandon the regularly proffered folding aluminum-frame cot in favour of solider back support), and also for a little low stool at the foot of the mattress and bedding, which stool bears my suitcase, out of which I will live for the duration. My time, of course, will be spent primarily in other parts of the house, and in London at large. Not that either of those are any less cluttered or seemingly chaotic than Bob's workroom - although the city does have some relatively open spaces.
Bob's house on Petherton Avenue in northwest London is just a little ways off from a street called Poet's Road, down which he and I used sometimes to walk, years ago, to the Nobody Inn, neither of us commenting on the multiple ironies inherent in the occasion. Bob and his second wife Jennifer Pike (they married sometime in the '60s, their forties) moved into their two-floor garden apartment on Petherton Road in 1984, which was around the time I got to know Bob (we'd met initially, and briefly, in Toronto in 1978 at the Eleventh International Sound Poetry Festival). His workroom occupies the front of the just-below-grade lower level of the building. The rest of that level contains Jennifer's workroom, plus the bathroom. Upstairs, at the back, is the kitchen, and in the front is Bob and Jennifer's bed-sitting room. Both of these rooms and the downstairs corridor are crowded with shelves of books and piles of papers; with Bob's and Jennifer's artworks on the walls (paintings by both from the early stages of their arts careers, and some of Bob's photocopy visual poems—that's photocopy, not photocopied, which distinction will become clear a bit further on here); with memorabilia of assorted nature, including a shelf in the kitchen devoted to Jennifer's pool trophies (she became an enthusiastic amateur contender when she took up the game in her seventies); while all available surface space is consumed by books, correspondence, flyers, magazines, writing implements, stationery items and supplies (tapes, scissors, padded envelopes, etc.), and other necessities. A minor mountain of like materials encroaches on the eating area of the kitchen table, and over against one wall is a long table bearing more of all the foregoing, plus some kind of antique electronic writing machine, and a recently acquired desk-top colour photocopier, whose transformative effect on Bob's visual work I'll get around to recounting later.
"There's so much junk in this house …," Bob complained one time, as he pursued an ultimately fruitless search for the bottle of olive oil I'd requested (Jennifer had already tried and given up; but Bob, who did all the cooking, was sure it was there somewhere), "… that you can't find anything!" I recall on another occasion bringing to Bob's attention the state of a sere and brittle plant hanging by the window. "Aa!" said Bob, without looking up from whatever was occupying him (a plate of food perhaps, or a glass of whisky, or else bits of paper for a collage poem), "It's been dead for years. Can't do any harm that way." It may have been about this point that the cat - named either Puss or Boots, depending on whether it was being addressed by Bob or by Jennifer - came wandering in, looking for food, and went over near the window, past towers of assorted unsorted papers, to poke about among several other harmless plants.
I, at some point, would have wandered out and back down to the workroom, to sleep beside the photocopier, a machine with which I felt a special connection. Not only did we share a room, but it, or more precisely, a predecessor of it, had come into Bob's house about the same time I started being a guest there. The photocopier took on the role previously played by the stencil duplicating machine (a.k.a. mimeograph or mimeo machine) in Bob's creative work and publishing projects. Make that "previous role, plus" - because the photocopier offered Bob greater scope and flexibility in his activities. With it, he could still do smears and blurs and overprintings, although there was a difference of what one might call timbre (to reach over into the lexicon of music for a term to metaphorically apply). Also, he could achieve the equivalent of heavier and lighter ink-flow through darker and lighter copying. And there were, I am sure, other duplicator effects that could be attained or approximated through photocopy techniques. But more importantly, the photocopier offered an expanded range of available effects (such functions as enlargement and reduction, for instance); in addition to which, the textural possibilities multiplied astronomically with the capacity to capture images of anything that could be placed on the platen. And anything would be. I once arrived in London from Amsterdam, where I'd bought a bottle of duty-free liquor, for which the store had provided a protective plastic-mesh sleeve (an item then just newly introduced), and which I'd left with my stuff in the workroom. A few days later, I noticed in the wastepaper basket some discarded sheets bearing the mesh's image: Bob had satisfied his curiosity, but the photocopied mesh hadn't satisfied him.
For Bob, the photocopier was (yes, the past tense now) paintbrush and palette, processor and printing press. He knew its every capacity and quirk, the way a musician knows his instrument. And he played it like an instrument, drawing from it—and with it, to appropriately mix my metaphors - virtuoso results. He had a virtuoso's dedication and painstaking persistence, working till he got it right, labouring over a detail meticulously, scrupulously, testing and rejecting, deliberating and musing, getting temporal distance from things, and going back later to declare it done or amend it further—like a poet striving to get the words just right. Whoops! Where'd that image come from?
I had a ringside seat for one striking instance of Bob's fastidious approach to his photocopy art. In 1994 he published a book of mine, Partial Additives, a collection of minimalist poems consisting of a title and two related words, the second of which was formed by the parenthetical insertion of a single letter into the first, as in the following example.
I mailed over to Bob fifty or more of these, ganged five or so to a page, in straightforward, unadorned typewritten text, with which Bob was to do as he saw fit for production as a Writers Forum publication, which results I would see when I got to London for the book launch. Immediately upon my arrival there some months later, Bob handed me a copy of what he had done, specifying that it was not a finished copy. "Still a few bits to clean up," he announced. I couldn't imagine what. The several newly published books of mine that I'd been handed in the past usually got an initial cursory flip-through, and then a closer, but peripatetic, examination. With this one, I found myself sitting there in that pub (my evening arrival meant nobody was in at Petherton Road, so I had to go from the airport to the pub they'd gone to, one determined by Jennifer's pool-tourney itinerary) going slowly through the book, page by page, staring in rapt amazement at each new revelation. The 56-page, 8 1/4 by 5 1/4, saddle-stitched book not only had an individual photocopy treatment of each typewritten poem on each page, along with an individual textural (and textual, Bob would insist) setting - in other words, graphic design; but in addition to that, each two-page spread was visually balanced with mutually compatible and complementary treatments. At the level of esthetic achievement, it is, quite simply, stunning. But as a feat of production, it's mind-boggling. Remember, this is being done on a photocopy machine, two-sided copies, two poems each side. So pages 24 and 33 are beside each other on the photocopy sheet, but their individual graphic settings match up with the graphic settings on pages 25 and 32, respectively, which are beside each other on another photocopy sheet; and then, what's on the other sides of those sheets has to match with what's … God! No wonder there was no housework getting done. Okay, you're doing the same kind of thing all the time, you get it down to a routine, but Writers Forum books are not formula publications, and they vary widely in format and extent, each one pretty much a custom job. Anyway, when I got the final copy a day or so later, some dedicated searching brought to light two small changes on two different pages that perfectly completed the previously imperfect complementary balance in the respective spreads. Whew!
I want to return to the mixed metaphors in the second-last paragraph. They were not so much considered as they were spontaneous, but they are absolutely appropriate, thoroughly accurate. The Cobbing photocopy works (which, once created, would then be photocopied in quantity) are poems, are scores, are pictures. (Same for the duplicator works, in point of fact.) Bob resolutely called them texts and as resolutely declared that he read them, making definite distinctions between texts that he read and purely improvisational pieces. By the same token, he readily referred to his photocopy works as scores, and said that he performed them - though never that he sang them, as equally valid a designation as that would have been (and not that it was a necessary one for the outcome to qualify as music). I can't cite him as authority for the photocopy works being pictures, but then I don't need to. They are. You only have to look at them to tell that (or read it).
When it came to this kind of blurring of borders between the arts, Bob could be as practical as he was principled. In the early '90s I phoned him to inquire, in context of an essay I was writing about vocal sound art and its practice in literary and musical contexts, whether he called his soundworks literature or music. His unhesitating reply: "Depends on what they're paying for."
Whatever they were paying for, it was never very much, of course, not when the poetry was uncompromisingly sonic, with what few words were in it being employed so unconventionally, so subversively; and not when the music was identical with the poetry—though usually performed with the addition of a couple of instrumentalists, such as those he performed with in the group Birdyak: jazz and free-improv sax legend Lol Coxhill, or performance artist-musician extraordinaire Hugh Metcalfe; which trio was often enough supplemented by the movement art of Jennifer Pike. Bob was as much a presence on the free improvisational music scene in London and England as he was on the city's and the country's sound and visual (so-called "experimental"; god, how I hate that term) poetry scenes. His influence and impact, virtually immeasurable, were enough recognized by the establishment to lead to obituaries in three major British newspapers, The Guardian, The London Times, and The Independent, as well as to half a page in the British new-music journal of note, The Wire. Save for the latter, none of them paid him any heed when he was alive, but there's nothing new(s) in that.
Whatever Bob managed to earn with his art and publishing was buttressed, from sometime in the '70s on, by a Civil List Pension. I believe it was his presence on that list that led, sometime in the early '90s, to an invitation to Buckingham Palace for a garden party with the Queen. Bob's decision to attend meant foregoing a trademark aspect of his personal attire: you could not be admitted to a royal garden party, with its hordes of guests and the Queen present (even if away from everybody inside the palace behind a glass partition), if you were sockless in sandals, which Bob was twelve months of the year. He bought a pair of shoes. Which likely would have exceeded his clothes budget for the year. As was reported to me by somebody (was it Lawrence Upton?) Bob once remarked that "I might spend three pounds a year on clothes. But I do like to have a little whisky in the house."
The whisky he kept in the house, at least in the last ten or more years of his life, was of connoisseur quality, rare and exquisite cask-strength single malt scotch, purchased through membership in The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, which sold only to members, mailing each pricey bottle in an individual little wooden crate. I think he was not a member the first couple of times I visited, when we'd share the bottle of Laphroaig I'd bring as a house gift. But somewhere along the way there started emerging these high-octane items, stuff so potent (anywhere from 50% alcohol by volume to 60% or more - and the normal retail standard is only 40%) that it was necessary to add water to prevent the taste buds from being numbed, and to bring out the liquor's spectrum of flavours.
"Fancy a little whisky?" was the typical late-night invitation upon return from the evening's separate or shared activities. A snack and conversation invariably ensued, until tiredness took over and we headed for our beds. These wee-hour sessions occasioned some fondly remembered Cobbing quotes, sampled here from over the years, dealing with matters mundane and profound.
Bob: They say every glass of whisky you drink destroys a thousand brain cells.
Cobbing got into both sound and poetry through painting. His father had been an amateur painter, and painting was something Bob had always done since about the age of eleven. In the '50s, as a schoolteacher in Hendon, just north of London, he exhibited in group shows as a member of the Hendon Experimental Art Group; worked seriously at his painting, though he took no formal training (tried once, but found it boring); and generally thought of himself as a painter. As such, one of his ongoing interests was the visual rendering of sound. In 1954 he started using words in his paintings, and began thinking of his work as poetry and himself as a poet. It was in 1954 that he wrote "Worm," which he referred to once, in a conversation we had, as "my first verbal poem of any consequence," going on to say, "There were lots of things before that, but they're all bloody awful, and I hope I've lost them forever." Simultaneously with his painting activities, for which his principal medium was gouache on board, he continued with the duplicator creations that he had been doing since the '40s. He didn't start performing his duplicator works, however, until sometime in the '50s. Once he started performing those pieces, he kept them in use for decades, and in 1997, when Bob was on tour in Alberta with W. Mark Sutherland and me after the Eye Rhymes Conference in Edmonton, he performed a duplicator poem from 1942.
Me: Thank God. With any luck you can get to stop thinking and just be. "Cogito ergo sum" - what a load of shit. Facto ergo sum. Or better still: Ipso facto ergo sum.
Bob: Yes. I reckon I've just about obliterated my education. [Pause.] Well, as long as I can drink enough whisky to keep my memory under control.
Me: Does Hugh [who had some years earlier established a reputation for mooning.] still drop his pants in public?
Bob: Not very often. No.
Me: I remember reading an interview with Borges where he talked about going blind, and said it was like experiencing a very long, very slow twilight.
Bob: Who wants to see, anyway? As compared with the inner soul. Yeah.
Me: How's the family-tree research going? [Bob had taken an interest in Cobbing family history in the '90s, writing, editing, and publishing a newsletter distributed to descendants from both parental families]
Bob: All right. I've discovered that Cobbing and Chopin are names deriving from the same source. [Bob and his French contemporary and colleague, Henri Chopin, weren't on speaking terms.] So we're likely brothers. Probably explains why we hate each other so much
Me: "Rammel Stimpink." That's German, isn't it?
Bob: No. Scandinavian.
Me: What's it mean?
Bob: I don't know. I don't worry about what things mean. Just what they sound like.
Cobbing kept up his painting into the '60s, and some works from that period were used to decorate the walls at the Petherton Road residence. One of these was included in an exhibit at a library in Finchley Park, London, in 1965, where it outraged the local councillor, who, upon seeing it, told the attending librarian, "Take that picture down. It's obscene and blasphemous." When asked why that was so, the councillor - one Margaret Thatcher - replied, "It's all sperm!"
Some people just can't tell the difference between sperm and text. Bob, of course, would likely contend that there is no difference to tell. He once wrote (in the periodical Stereo Headphones, January, 1974), that "Any mark upon a piece of paper may be interpreted in sound. By extension, any mark on stone or shell or bark, their roughness or smoothness, vicious jagged shape or gentle undulations, may also be interpreted as sound." So surely, by further extension, any blob of sperm may be sonically interpreted as well. Bob certainly read blobs of ink and photocopy toner, along with the many other shapes and texts he conjured with those media.
The character of Bob's readings of these abstract texts was principally associative, as he made clear on one occasion when I asked him to speak about how he used his visual texts in performance. "I am interpreting, or attempting to interpret the textures and tones and rhythms and shapes of the visual as sound. It's a very free interpretation, but it is an interpretation. And I am actually following the shapes and lines and movements on the page." He then added, after a brief pause, "But not always!" following that with a burst of laughter. He then continued: "Well, one must allow a certain freedom of interpretation, and it's certainly not a strict notation. I would see lots of little thin lines up in that corner as a higher pitch, and some strong, thick lines down in this corner as a lower pitch. But again, you know, very roughly." Additional factors would further modify this already loose interpretation of a text. The involvement of other performers would affect his interpretation to some extent, as would the character and qualities of the performance space, with the audience also having its impact on the interpretation.
It was during what could be called Bob's painting career that Writers Forum began, growing out of the Hendon art group. Several of the painters in the group who had taken to writing poetry decided to meet as writers and to publish their work. This evolved into the press that Bob so ardently operated for the rest of his life, and into a workshop that he operated just as ardently and for just as long. The Writers Forum Workshop, which met about every two weeks, possessed a special character, being neither instructional nor hierarchical, and with no registration, no fees, and no admission charge at the door. Here's how it worked.
Bob would arrive at the designated pub sometime before the announced starting time of the workshop, which would take place in the pub's function room. (Brief digression for a note of information: the British-pub function room, above or otherwise contiguous to the main barroom, is typically available for private use by arrangement and without cost, which makes it the first choice for any off-the-beaten-path arts event in London - and all Bob's arts events were off the beaten path. Besides, Bob loved pubs and beer.) Bob would sit in the main bar with his pint, and socialize with the gathering participants, who varied in number (the handful of times that I was in attendance) from five to fifteen or so, consisting of poets at varying stages of development, and ranging from the unpublished to the much published. When Bob deemed it appropriate, he would take his glass and ascend to the function room, everyone else following suit. Once assembled, chatting would cease when Bob would announce the start of the workshop and ask who would like to begin. Who would like, would, reading their verbal or sound text, and then resuming their seat (if they had left it). After a respectful space of time, Bob would request another volunteer, and the same procedure would ensue, being repeated until Bob (who might well have been one of those volunteering to present a piece) would announce a break. After glasses were replenished and other matters attended to, including a bit more socializing, the workshop would resume, proceeding along the same lines as before. There was no analysis, no criticism, no ego-tripping, no bullshit. I once asked Bob if there were ever any discussions about the works read, and was told that it might occur here and there, that there wasn't much point to it really, that you could pretty much tell whether whatever you'd read had gone over well or not. The point, clearly, was just to read and to share. A variation in the format would occur if a guest reader were featured, when the second half would be devoted to that person's reading, an offer I was pleased to have extended to me most times I was in town.
The egalitarian, easy-access character of Bob's Writers Forum Workshop is associated in my mind with the cheap and cheerful, come-and-get-it character of his Writers Forum publications, and his duplicator and photocopy art in general. There is no mystique of the signed original, when the original is a photocopy. On one of my trips, I found myself at a friend's opening at an art gallery somewhere in the south of London, where I wound up in conversation with the gallery owner, who expressed an enthusiasm for text-based art. I happened to have with me one of Bob's books, and took it out to show it, imagining a future opening for Bob at the toney gallery, and maybe some commensurate income. It wasn't quite like throwing a lead balloon up in the air, and the gallery owner's eyes didn't exactly glaze over, but you could almost see the thought balloon over her head, reading "What money can I make off of photocopy multiples?"
Bob kept everything in print, and if he'd run out of stock and an order came in, he'd run off some more. He charged, with due consideration for his own costs, what people like him would be able to afford, not what he figured was the most he could get.
Near the start of this essay I mentioned Bob's acquisition of a colour photocopier and referred to its transformative effect on his visual work. The machine that he got sometime in the last four years of his life triggered a departure from his exclusively black-and-white published work, launching him into the creation of coloured pieces. But the departure was simultaneously a return, for he had worked with colour before, and not just in his paintings. One of the effects he had worked in the '50s was the application of duplicator ink directly to paper, i.e., without the agency of the duplicator itself (he also used the ink for some of his works on board). In creating these works he used coloured inks. Some of the works were published in his Voice Prints, one of the books in his multi-volume Collected Poems. With the colour copier, of course, he worked very differently. He basically made colour collages, using pieces of printed paper snipped from glossy magazines. He had a whole pile of these cuttings sitting on the kitchen table, along with a spectrum of coloured felt pens stuck in a coffee mug, with a couple of glue sticks close by, and a pair of small scissors. He would select colours and tear or cut out shapes, assembling and gluing the chosen pieces to a backing sheet about 3 x 5 inches in size. The felt pens came into play if a tear resulted in the exposure of plies whose whiteness interfered with the developing image, when the appropriate colour of pen would be selected to correct the situation. Once he got it to his satisfaction, he'd centre it on the photocopier platen and run it through, enlarged to fit on an A4 sheet (British letter-size, 8 3/16 x 11 5/8).
When I was in London in '98, Bob's pace had slowed a fair bit. The guy who used to lead the charge to catch the last bus after an evening in a pub for a concert or a reading, now needed me to walk more slowly so he could keep up. He did not, however, slacken the pace of his artistic output and arts organizing, of publishing and performance. Over the ensuing months, though, when I'd phone to say hello, the opening "How are you?" did not elicit the usual cheery report of good health. Arthritis was setting into his back and hips. Then I got reports from others in or visiting London of increasing fragility, of a minor stroke that caused vision problems (happily reversed). A more cheering report was news about his 80th birthday celebration in 2000, which was held in a pub (natch), and featured performances by a raft of London poets and musicians, many having Bob share the stage with them, the whole thing going on for a full five hours. In the fall of that year I was able to take advantage of a festival engagement in France to get over to London for a visit, during which Bob and I did a duo performance in Hugh Metcalfe's free improv music series at The Klinker in north London. Bob needed two canes to get around, and shuffled more than he walked, but his performance lacked nothing. He could only leave the house now to go with Jennifer by car, but he made it down the stairs to that photocopier to make poems, print books, and run off flyers for readings and such. Same again in May of 2002, when the CCMC gig got me over there again. At a Writers Forum Workshop then, Bob performed a collaborative piece with Lawrence Upton on voice and Jennifer doing movement, in which all three were at the top of their form.
Ten days after a solo performance at the Klinker in September, 2002, Bob entered hospital for some fairly routine treatment, and contracted pneumonia. He knew the jig was up, and from his hospital bed issued instructions to Lawrence Upton and Adrian Clarke on production details of the next issue of And, the literary periodical he edited, and worked out with them the terms on which they would carry on the work of Writers Forum, publishing and workshop. The end came peacefully in the early hours of September 29, sometime after he'd slipped into a coma.
I was on the road when it happened, incommunicado, and found out a week after. I'm told that the funeral was attended by some 200 people, about evenly split between musicians and writers. Bob was buried in a woodland portion of a cemetery, in an unmarked grave (his choice), and a beech tree has subsequently been planted there. I mean to visit that tree some day. And when I do, I just might try reading it.