John Barton Wolgamot, USA | birth & death dates unknown
Full Text by John Barton Wolgamot with Essays by Keith Waldrop and Robert Ashley.
"In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women" (PDF, 208k)
Complete MP3 Audio:
In Sara Mencken, Christ and Beethoveen there were men and women (1972)
Text: John Barton Wolgamot (written 1944)
Music: Robert Ashley + Paul DeMarinis
Voice: Robert Ashley
Reissued by Lovely Music, LCD 4921
All sound and videos are granted to UbuWeb by permission of Robert Ashley and Lovely Music.
JOHN BARTON Wolgamot
by Keith Waldrop
On Wednesday, May 23rd, 1973, Robert Ashley and I went to see John Barton Wolgamot. We met and talked to him in the lobby of the Little Carnegie Cinema, of which he was the manager. 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.""Wolgamot" became a society (it would be a bit too much to say organization) when several friends and I wanted to give events-theatrical, we called them-on campus and had to give our group a name. We gave Ubu Roi (translating it as Gopotty Rex); we gave Grabbe's Comedy, Satire, Irony and Deeper Meaning; The Talking Ass by John Heath-Stubbs; Paul Goodman's Jonah. (Ashley and Mumma supplied music for Jonah.)
We tried our best then-we were, after all, supposed to be scholars-to locate our hero, the author of In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women. It had been published by the author, no place of publication mentioned, but I found a reference that gave an address where, some fifteen years before, it had been advertised as available, an address in New York.
Unfortunately, at that address-a building housing several printers-no one recalled the name Wolgamot.
From another source, I found listed-for 1943, one year before our text-a book by the same author, called In Sara Haardt Were Men and Women. It had been published by Richard R. Smith, a vanity press, then in the Village. A little research yielded a new address for Smith in Peterborough, N.H., and I ordered, from Richard R. Smith directly, two copies of the book-listed (back then) as selling for two dollars.
The publisher answered (which I had not altogether expected), saying that there was in fact only one copy left. For this survivor, he demanded four dollars-which I sent immediately. The book I then received was the same shape as the one I already had (but a bit larger). The striking thing was that the two texts, except for the title page, were identical. It seemed, indeed, to have been printed from the same plates.
Now the Mencken Bibliography, I found, revealed that Wolgamot had sent both books to Mencken, whose copies had been left to the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, along with the rest of the late critic's library.
As in many of his books, Mencken had jotted into them his reactions. In one, he complained that Wolgamot "was writing this balderdash even before Sara died." This had prompted him to get on the phone and demand to know, "Wolgamot, are you crazy?" To which the author had replied (as Mencken put it, "unpreturbed"), "No. I am quite sane. I just like to write that way." About Wolgamot and his work, everybody who looked at the book seemed to have a theory. A psychoanalyst (local, but with roots in Vienna) was sure the author must be schizophrenic, probably in an institution, certainly unable to function in any job at all. D. C. Hope caused some disturbance by claiming, in a public lecture at Wayne State University, that Wolgamot was the reincarnation of Doctor Johnson.
Robert Ashley, at first glance, seemed dazzled and declared that here was the book he had always wanted to write.
Mary Ashley called it a "festival of names" and proceeded to make her own festival with Truck: a Dance.
I got into the act with at least two harebrained claims. One was simple: I maintained that the volumes I had found so far were the first two of a trilogy, which would be completed with one more volume-with, again, the same text, from the same plates. A trilogy of great formal unity.
My second theory, more complicated, was based on the fact that although every page of the book contains one and the same (and only one) sentence, there are certain irregularities. The very first page refers to the "cruelly ancestral death of Sara Powell Haardt." The last page mentions the Second Coming. There is also, elsewhere, ""Wolgamot as God," and what could be taken as an identification of Mencken and Beethoven. Mencken, I found, had married Sara Powell Haardt, knowing she was about to die. (She lived, in fact, after marriage, five more years, which no one had expected.) I claimed that the work was a funeral piece for Sara Powell Haardt, intimating, however, that while Sara was Mencken's on earth, she was Wolgamot's in eternity.
It was generally conceded that my theories were the unlikeliest. Looking back, it seems to me that the crazier the reading, the more likely it was to have some relevance, whereas the psychoanalyst (and, perhaps, Hope-if taken literally) were wrong.
At one point, we cast toothpicks to determine hexagrams, with which to consult the I Ching. Our question: was Wolgamot still alive? The answer, given at length, we found unequivocal. Wolgamot was alive, but in decline.
Rosmarie and I visited an old friend in Urbana and mentioned the establishment of the John Barton Wolgamot Society. My friend said,""I know somebody named Wolgamot."
""Really? What's his first name?"
""Bart." Though he was obviously too young to be our Wolgamot, I insisted that she find out if he was related.
A week later-we were back in Michigan-she wrote that she had quizzed this Bart, a music student at the University of Michigan, and found that John Barton Wolgamot was his uncle. And-he had added-""...not my favorite one."
Thus, after long and fruitless search, we found, quite by accident, Wolgamot's address, a hotel in New York, on Broadway at a Hundred and Fourth Street. James Camp and X. J. Kennedy were taking a trip to New York. I charged them to visit Wolgamot.
They got to the door of the hotel . . . and turned back, deciding (in, I suppose, a truly great manner) that-as they put it-he should ""remain a legend."
Then, at a party at Ingo Seidler's house, Wolgamot's name came up and I admitted I knew his phone number: Monument six one thousand. Ingo immediately put the phone by me and said, "Call him. Invite him to come and read." 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. 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. Finding that he could speak any one page without taking a breath, he recorded a page, took a breath, recorded another . . . When the whole book was on tape, he went back and cut out every between-page breath.
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." Ashley, relieved, saw that she was going. But, the door open, her hand on the knob, she turned again, to say how happy she was to know that Ashley was going to contact Wolgamot. And, just before disappearing, closing the door behind her,
""Oh-and, by the way . . .
""You'd better bone up on the Eroica."
A bit later, he gave me a frantic call, because he had gotten in contact with Wolgamot, and had made an appointment to see him. And, he said, "I can't go alone!" So I said, "All right, I'll come to New York and go with you."
My train was an hour late, so when I got to the movie house-the Little Carnegie-Ashley was already there, and the first thing Wolgamot had said to him was, "Are you the person who called me in the middle of the night ten years ago?" And Ashley said, "Oh, no, no no-that was Keith Waldrop!"
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. "You can see that in the great novels," he says. "Take Tolstoy. What does this remind you of: Annaka rennina annaka rennina?-it's a train, of course. That's why she's killed by a train."
""That's why," he said, "when a woman marries and gives up her name, she gives up her personality."
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."
I asked him if he had ever met Mencken. He said he hadn't but, "I talked to him on the phone once." I said I supposed, then, he had never met Sara Powell Haardt, and I could see Ashley was remembering my silly theory. And Wolgamot said, "No, I never met Sara Powell Haardt. I used her name, because her last name's Haardt and my middle name's Bart." But he went on, "Of course, in the book, I represent myself as having an illicit relation with her. In a book like this, there has to be some love interest."
I kept telling him I was a printer. He never responded. He said his third book, he thought probably should be published by a commercial press, and asked if I knew anything about October House. "It's not a communist front, is it?" Since it was obvious he knew nothing about this (by then already defunct) press, I asked him how he had chanced on it. He seemed to think it perfectly obvious: "October's the tenth month, but it means eight. And 'house' has five letters. 1805-that's the year of the Eroica!"
He said he had had both books destroyed. He was sure there could not be more than a couple dozen copies all told. (Besides the two mentioned above, I had found a second copy of the later book, the one I sent to Ashley.)
After the interview, Ashley tried to keep in touch with Wolgamot, who did visit a few times, and once took Ashley and Mimi Johnson to the Russian Tea Room. But the Little Carnegie was torn down, and working for a different movie house, somewhere in the suburbs, Wolgamot became less sociable.
So it was rather unexpected to find, when Wolgamot died, that in his will he had appointed Ashley his literary executor. Ashley was supposed to receive the contents of a safety-deposit box, which we assumed would contain the plates for the book-since Wolgamot had told us he still had the plates. After some legal folderol, the contents of the box were delivered. It contained nothing but stamping for the title of a book: the title, Beacons of Ancestorship. This we took to refer to the third book, but I now run across a letter from 1980, where he seems to be abandoning that book for a completely new project:
I'm doing a piece of fiction that embodies the ancestral theme and think well of it so far as it's gone. This is pretty far-the current draft has only six pages to go.
As far as I know, nothing of this fiction survives.
Wolgamot was certainly never satisfied with any of his books. He told Ashley that in In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women there were two names he would like to change: Pissarro and Thespis-apparently because he was bothered by the first syllable of one and the second syllable of the other.
He had impossibly high standards. Every page had to give him the experience that he had once gotten in reading his own text (this is from the same letter):
Near the very end, at the bottom of the Corot page, you could hear Beethoven speak. Loud and clear and in English.
JOHN BARTON Wolgamot
by Robert Ashley
Because Keith Waldrop introduced me to In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women, and because Keith and John Barton Wolgamot are in many mysterious ways inseparable in my imagination, I should start these remarks with a few additions to or commentaries on Keith's story.
I have to start with anecdotes, putting my analysis of the work at the end, because my analysis of the work is inadequate. And because I must leave the analysis open-ended, in case some future cryptographer comes up with the answer I could never find.
Where Keith says that Wolgamot said that he "had had both books destroyed," I distinctly remember that Wolgamot said he had sold (or somehow got rid of) twelve copies of the first book and two copies of the second. (As one of the many, many bizarre events surrounding my relationship to Wolgamot and his book, I met a man some ten years later who claimed that he had bought and still had a copy of the book I had used in the recording. He was a music-business person, who knew of my work.I never saw his copy, but I had no reason not to believe him, even though we were in the middle of a martini lunch at the time. He must have bought one of the two of those that Mr. Smith was selling in his shop in Greenwich Village at the time.)
Going backwards a bit, Wolgamot at some point in our relationship told me that he had had the "inspiration" for the book while standing in his mother's bedroom and that he had immediately jotted down "the plan" on a scrap of paper while standing at his mother's chest of drawers-the plan that took up the rest of his life. I should suppose this was the plan for the names, but it might have been the plan for the great sentence that, as Keith remembers, took him ten years to write.
Keith says that Wolgamot seemed to be in his sixties when the three of us met at the Little Carnegie Cinema. This must be right, considering the reality of his job and all. But I must add that the more times I met with Wolgamot over the next three or four years, the more difficult an estimation of his age became for me. He was a deeply mysterious man. Like no man I have ever known. Almost ""unreal." Almost ageless, although old. And so when I tried to do the calculations of the age and the "inspiration," I came up with the ""inspiration" coming to him in his mid teens. His mother's bedroom, remember. After our first meeting I visited Wolgamot two or three times in his tiny office at the Little Carnegie Cinema, always with specific questions about the structure of the book. It seemed inappropriate to take a tape recorder, so I asked the questions and then tried to take notes. But I always failed to bring home anything that made any sense. Wolgamot had about him not a trace of evasiveness. In fact, he seemed eager to explain. The problem was that I never understood what he had said or what he was talking about. It was as though I had asked Einstein about time or space. We inhabited different universes. Of course, the obvious reason for my problem is that the book is so immensely complicated structurally, and it probably never occurred to him, nor could he have done it, to begin from the beginning. (Since then I have had meetings with students who want information about music and who know not one thing about music, and in those situations there is no beginning to begin from. There is just vast ignorance on the one part and a sense of impossibility on the other. I was the student. I was vastly ignorant. Wolgamot had never taught, so he had none of the diplomatic tricks to explain that what was going on was impossible.)
Finally, I got up the courage to invite him to dinner at the loft that Mimi Johnson and I shared. The loft was in "early artists' style"-that is, with very little heat and almost nothing of anything else. He arrived stunningly, as if the most successful man on Wall Street: a beautiful and perfectly fitting, fine wool suit, dazzling patent leather shoes, white silk scarf and a flawless, dark cashmere coat. (I knew by this time that he lived in a single-room ""residential" hotel on far upper-Broadway in Manhattan. Beyond the pale. In a suburban frame of mind you wouldn't go there.) This was the first of the mysteries.
Wolgamot was a ladies' man. In this matter, age is meaningless. He was much more interested in Mimi than he was in me. They both came from central Illinois, a very special place, unknowable to outsiders. He obviously enjoyed the macaroni and cheese and succotash combination, probably followed by apple pie. (I forget.) I don't have notes from that night. I was in a state of disbelief. The disciple (me) was simply an aside. Wolgamot was interested in Mimi. This was the first of four or five dinners at our loft. Always the same mystery, the impeccable dress, the total indifference to our dour situation, the flattering appreciation of the meal (Mimi is a very good cook, but the kitchen left something to be desired), the generous and confident talk, the deepening mystery of his age-he seemed always to become a younger man, as if at the power of his creativity.
On each occasion I would have prepared a list of questions about the book. Every question was answered directly and without impatience. I wrote as fast as I could. When he had left Mimi and I would discuss the answers, each of us remembering different details. Then I would look at my notes and realize again that I had nothing. This was, of course, a few years after I had spent a year analyzing the book in the only way I knew how-as if it were a piece of music or as if it were a poem. So, I had a lot of questions. But even now, I have no answers. Just notes that I don't understand, or in some cases ideas that are not confirmed in my analysis. More of this later. Then, he invited us to dinner-at The Russian Tea Room. (For readers not familiar with New York I should say that The Russian Tea Room, was then-and maybe still is-the place to be, at least for artists and musicians. Corporate ambition has since made eating fancy in New York something like a part of the national budget, but I think the Tea Room is still going strong.) We were seated in the central, red-leather banquette. A few steps down below, the main floor was jammed with tables filled with obvious celebrities, some known and most unknown to me. (On a trip to the men's room I had to slide by a world-famous novelist, wildly engaged in some deal, whose chair was banged every time the men's room door opened. He probably thought himself lucky to be there. The Russian Tea Room.)
We were treated like royalty. At the end of the meal, when I expected the check to come, I naively offered to contribute something. But no. At some secret signal the waiter appeared with our coats and we were royally escorted to the door. (The check had never come.) Outside we walked to the corner and waited for the bus, which was to take Wolgamot to his hotel. Mimi and I took the subway home.
That was the last time I saw Wolgamot. I phoned a few more times to meet him again, but his excuse was always that now he was again fully engaged in the book, and because he had only one day off from work he was simply too pressed for time.
In one of those conversations, which were friendly, even jovial, he told me how happy he was to have found names to replace the two names that had bothered him in the version of the book I have. I think he said he got the names from the New York Times.
He wanted to replace "Camille Pissarro" with "Peter Cornelius" and he wanted to replace "Thespis" with "Ruth Page."
I need to elaborate somewhat on Keith's story about the woman in Los Angeles. She said, actually, after the concert, that she had been ironing when she heard Wolgamot's name in a public-service announcement on the radio. She called the station to find out about the concert, and that is how we met. Her name is Joyce Brenner. (I am not sure that this is right for me to tell, but names are what it's all about.)
She said that she had called Wolgamot that day to tell him about the concert and that he seemed happy that I was working on the book. But we didn't have much time to talk, so I made a trip to Los Angeles a few weeks later to have lunch with her, to find out more. She said that when she was a teenager in New York she had had to go, after school, to the lunchroom in the hotel where she lived with her parents, to wait for her parents to return from work. In the lunch room at the same time there was always this (middle-aged) man, who, she learned when they became friends, had just returned from his day at the New York Public Library. They became friends. (As unlikely as this story seems, I think Wolgamot had to tell somebody.) Gradually she came to understand what he was doing at the library. He tried to explain. Then he, in turn, had to go to work (probably at the Little Carnegie; I got the idea somewhere in our conversations that he and Walter Reade, the owner of the movie theater, were friends and that he had worked at the Little Carnegie a long time).
She described to me a folder of pages of names that he worked with. She got the vague idea that he was working on an enormous project, but that was all she understood. Somehow the way she told this to me was a premonition of the way I would feel when he talked to me. She described him with great affection. He was generous with his time and ideas, even though the ideas were impossible to understand. He was kind and patient, but obsessed. (What a blessing for a young person! They were still in contact thirty years later.)
His obsession is important. Wolgamot told Mimi and me that his ""inspiration" (for what?) came during a concert at Damrosch Park. (Damrosch Park is in New York City, so obviously Wolgamot was in New York well before the publication of the first version of the book in 1941. The chronology of these anecdotes is impossible to reconcile.) A New York orchestra was playing Beethoven's Eroica symphony in an outdoor summer concert. While the symphony was being played Wolgamot ""saw" the image of Beethoven (was this the familiar torso image?) in an astral light above the orchestra. They didn't have light-shows in those days. This was Wolgamot's vision.
For those of you who have not read the lives of the poets, this is the time to laugh. I would caution you against that. Things are bad enough in the world of the imagination as it is.
For Wolgamot this vision was a reality that sustained him. In some way it "caused" one of the great art works of the twentieth century. Keith's two "harebrained" claims both seem right to me. The first, that the book I had and the earlier version that Keith has are part of a trilogy, was, in some way, confirmed by the fact that Wolgamot told me, in so many words (I don't have them written down), that the ""book" was, essentially, the title page! After an elaborate explanation of the physical lay-out of the book (the fact that conceptually you could look "through" the book, as though through a group of 128 transparencies, and that the lines of each page would fall exactly upon the lines of all of the others and that the names would be somehow "interleaved" to give the book yet another, deeper meaning), Wolgamot said that one should consider the title page to be ""the body" of the book, and that the 128 pages of names should be considered as "the blood flowing through the body."
Another confirmation of the "trilogy" idea is that, when I was named in Wolgamot's will as his "publisher" and the will said that I was to receive all of the "plates" for the printing of the book as he had explained his intentions to me (I expected, with dread, that I would get boxes of lead plates-and that my life would be ruined), I got simply a title-plate, Beacons of Ancestorship, with the subtitle, "A Symphonic Study of the Rejuvenation in the Grain."
Keith is right. This is the perfect trilogy: In Sara Haardt Were Men and Women; In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women; Beacons of Ancestorship, A Symphonic Study of the Rejuvenation in the Grain. When I become a millionaire and can publish all three books exactly according to Wolgamot's dream, the reader will be able to read the three books, in order, and find a different meaning in each. And find the thrill of "A Symphonic Study of the Rejuvenation in the Grain."
Keith's other theory, "that while Sara was Mencken's on earth, she was Wolgamot's in eternity" was confirmed in not quite the same words by Wolgamot to me. I have only yet to decide whether the book is a eulogy or an amazing love letter. I am inclined toward the latter interpretation, since the book was "inspired" while Sara was still alive.
We can hardly understand today the depth of a commitment to such a project. It makes Wolgamot seem a mad man. Wolgamot was not a mad man. He was one of the sanest and most visionary persons I have ever met. But he lived and worked during a time and in a place where such a commitment was the only possible expression of his genius. All over America, before we became homogenized by the media (and by the ability to travel!), people lived in loneliness and dreams. This was a new people. And especially in the vast (endless) Midwest, where the European-Americans were cut off from their roots, a ""civilization"-that is, a collection of memories that make sense of the present-had to be invented.
I have seen this invention in many forms, and indeed most of the forms were a form of madness: the "collectors." (Example 1: A tiny town in Wisconsin where my car broke down and I spent a few hours in the "museum"-admission 25 cents. A huge shed, probably formerly a commercial chicken coop, filled with hand-made boxes about 18 inches in each dimension, with a glass front, stacked six feet high, each box containing every kind of thing the collector had collected in his life-matchbook folders, safety pins, pieces of broken glass, breathtaking banalities-each item elaborately labeled and dated. Hundreds of boxes. A history of civilization. Example 2: A woman with a house full of cheap ceramic carnival prizes-Mickey Mouse, vases, dinosaurs, etceteras, which were put out on the lawn every morning in a new display, a new configuration, and taken in every night and cleaned and polished.) These museums existed in the hundreds. Everybody could tell me about their favorite one. I thought for a moment that I should specialize in this history of America, and make a museum of museums. But of course I couldn't. I think they are all gone now. Still we do not have a civilization, but the museums of memories are gone.
At this point I would recommend Keith Waldrop's novel, Light While There is Light (Sun and Moon Press, Los Angeles, 1993.) It is a great book. It is about the desperate Midwest of the first half of this century. It explains things that you didn't know needed explanation to know who you are. Proust in the Midwest of America. The difference between Beacons of Ancestorship and the "museums" is that Wolgamot was not driven to madness by loneliness and that he was a genius. But the impulse is the same. He had to create a civilization that immortalized his love for Sara. And he had to do it beginning in Danville, Illinois.
Although Wolgamot was well-educated (two years at Notre Dame followed by two years at Princeton-without graduating, I think) I never got the impression that he understood how the form of his work related to traditional forms in music, for instance, the Eroica. (People educated in music almost invariably resort to some sort of musical jargon to explain an idea. I never heard this from Wolgamot.) I suspect he knew nothing about musical form, except in the general sense of form-titles and section-titles: "symphony," "scherzo," etceteras. I suspect he knew nothing, and cared nothing, about modernism in writing. I think that he invented what had to be invented and that, because he was a genius, he made something that was perfect and that is without a precedent.
One more anecdote. When I had finished studying the book for many months and when I had decided to "propose" an opera-for-television based on the book that, in honor of the book, would be as unlikely to be produced as the book had been unlikely to be published, I asked my friend, Paul DeMarinis, a wonderful composer and a brilliant electronic designer to collaborate with me on a "pilot-project" tape recording that would present the text of In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women in a manner that could be produced only on television-that is, with the speed of television editing and with scene settings and scene changes that could only be accomplished electronically. I explained the form of the text as best I could to Paul-especially the idea that the form of the text is governed by the reappearance throughout of seven pairs of names, seven women and seven men (Paul remarked that 128 pages is 2 to the seventh power), and that the text seemed to me to represent a "performable" musical composition-and Paul designed a set of synthesizer configurations that represented the comings and goings of these special names in the text.
The technical plan was that the singing of the text (pre-recorded and edited) would be on one track of an eight-track tape, and that Paul and I would "perform" (insert) the special synthesizer configurations as any one of the seven pairs of names appeared, and that each of these seven pairs would be on a separate track of the tape. Thus, we would make a rudimentary eight-track tape that later would be subjected to an elaborate mixing and processing plan in order to finish a stereo "master." This work took weeks of our time in the studio.
We finished the rudimentary tape on a Thursday night, probably very late. The next day I had an afternoon seminar to teach (at the Center for Contemporary Music, Mills College.) Having nothing else to talk about I decided to come to the studio in the morning and make a crude, "flat" mix of the eight tracks to a stereo tape; that is, all of the tracks were set at the same level, with no processing, no mixing, none of the subtleties of a finished product that Paul and I had planned.
On Saturday I was supposed to leave for a couple of weeks to give some concerts. I didn't own a good suitcase, so I asked a friend at the studio if I could borrow a suitcase for the tour.
Irrationally (I'm not sure now whether this is the word), I decided after the seminar to take home all of the work that Paul and I had done over the past weeks-to "safeguard" the tapes; they were so precious to me. It took me at least two trips from the studio to my car to take away the dozens of master tapes we had accumulated. I drove to my friend's house to pick up the suitcase. By this time it was totally dark. My friend lived on one of the back streets in the Berkeley "flats." The streetlights, such as they were, were a long way apart. My car was in almost total darkness. I didn't lock the car. Why should I? (But I remember some strange feeling in that decision even now.) The tapes were in the back seat of a two-door car, virtually out of sight.
I went to my friend's door to get the suitcase. I declined a drink and a chat. I couldn't have been in his house more than five minutes-the time it took him to dig the suitcase out of a closet. When I returned to the car, the tapes were gone. I was crazed. I drove around the blocks madly. It would have taken four people to carry away the tapes in hand. I looked in every corner trash basket. Who would want these used tapes? How could this be? It made no sense. But they were gone.
I was broken-hearted and totally unnerved by the impossible circumstances. Weeks of work were gone. I knew it would never be done again.
I thought everything was lost. I thought there was some curse on me that was a warning about my presumption in taking on the Wolgamot project. I was not in a good frame of mind.
When I returned from the concert tour I found the crude, Friday morning mix still sitting on the shelf of the mixing console. (So much for safe-guarding.) So this CD is that tape, that has since been processed many times in the newest digital programs to clean it up. My apologies to Paul DeMarinis. My presumption undid us.
Robert Ashley in UbuWeb Sound
Music with Roots in the Aether in UbuWeb Film