Sunday, October 27, 2013

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

I've made clear that I find Words for the Dying an affront. The instrumental and choral arrangements by Cale and Eno don't seem intrinsically bad, but between the completely affectless boy's choir and the sloppy Russian orchestra, the execution never gets better than tolerable. This feeling is amplified every time I listen to the unimpeachable stripped-down and focused solo piano arrangements featured on Fragments of a Rainy Season.

The chromatic harmonies and dissonant notes of the Words... arrangement of Dylan Thomas's most famous poem, however, add a layer of discontent to the oddly buoyant vocal and instrumental melodies that Cale uses for this poem that seems to extol senile dementia. For a while, I felt uneasy about it: the orchestral version that I disliked seemed to communicate the poem's tone more accurately than the solo version I loved.

A couple years ago, though, something extremely improbable happened: I found a useful YouTube comment. The author pointed out that the poem, after all, is a villanelle, a form originating in light pastoral subject matter. The poem subverts the form by taking this innocent form and twisting it to honor the incompleteness of even the greatest lives. The solo Cale arrangement does the same by taking more of the melodies into major keys and letting the dissonance out only in the connective tissue and certain vocal phrases.

(Not to give Dylan Thomas too much credit. "Do Not Go Gentle..." certainly helped repopularize the form, but it was on its way back already. Its resurgence in the 20th century led to many disturbingly effective poems, e.g. Sylvia Plath's "Mad Girl's Love Song".)

Here's the author himself reading the poem. It's striking how similar his meter is to Cale's - do you think that's a coincidence?

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The middle-eight piano ("Good men the last wave by...") always reminds me of Debussy's (awfully named, troublingly addictive) "Golliwogg's Cakewalk" from his Children's Corner.

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