Sound and Symbology: Platon Karataev and Wadada Leo Smith at Yale

Design by Kris Qiu

“A poem begins where, at the level of words, the fabric of the language cannot be woven any denser than the word, phrase, line, or stanza that is being composed.”

This definition comes from the Hungarian indie band Platon Karataev: musicians, not poets. But the members of this quartet would argue that the distance between poetry and melody—between language and music—is not as far as it might seem. Named after a character in War and Peace, Platon Karataev have situated themselves at the richly amorphous meeting place of literature, poetry, and sound. They are one of multiple creative groups who have come through Yale over the past few months attempting to map the margins of meaning-making. The fall of 2022 has been an oddly and wonderfully active period at the intersection of music and poetry on this campus. 

Platon Karataev songs are sonically saturated to the point where they have an almost physical weight. Think a heavy weave of ethereal guitars reminiscent of The Cure and hypnotic, impenetrably thick multi-track vocals which remind the listener of Gregorian chanting. The band describes their work as exploring both “atomic” and “astronomical” perspectives on metaphysical questions. This is certainly true of songs like “Partert Kialto,” which features unit guitar riffs that repeat and bleed into an expanse of background sound, playing at the edge of part and whole. Melody isn’t simply deposited over empty instrumentation—instead, lines are like glittering gems inlaid in a scaffolding of sonic structures.

Lyrically, Platon Karataev’s songs (almost all in Hungarian) are chiefly concerned with probing the “paradoxes” at “the core of existence.” The band approaches this task by pulling from Slavic literature. Their most recent fixation? The work of Sandor Csoori, one of Hungary’s most well-known poets and essayists who was heavily censored for his criticism of communism. While Platon Karataev had to cancel their New Haven debut at Café Nine due to issues with visas, lead singer Gergely Balla was able to share demos of new music that pulls from nine different Csoori poems at the twenty-fifth conference of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics and Writers. The event was held at the Whitney Humanities Center from October 20-23. 

Balla presented as part of a two-part seminar organized by the writer and Yale alumnus Diana Senechal which explored the art of setting poetry to music. The event was something between academic conference and arts collaborative; presentations included a composition inspired by The Tempest’s Caliban, a linguistic analysis of rap, and alternative sonic interpretations of John Donne’s poem “Batter my heart, three person’d God.” There was even a PhD student who performed a sonic adaptation of Sir Walter Raleigh’s poem “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd” with a focus on modern definitions of consent.

In the lively discussion that followed, academics and artists jockeyed over questions of genre. Like poems, song lyrics share the quality of brevity and multi-dimensional meaning. But they diverge in that music is relayed over time. Setting a poem to music, then, requires stretching its fabric to accommodate the additional element of rhythm. The seminar collectively identified repetition as a critical tool for maintaining the integrity of the source poem while still generating a memorable melody. Especially for creators like Platon Karataev, who directly reinterpret existing poems, repetition allows them to manufacture a kind of rhythm and momentum that translates to sonic contexts.

The workshop brought up a few contrasts—part versus whole, temporal density versus extension, design versus spontaneous performance—that have long been at the heart of avant-garde improvisational music. Free improvisational musicians are interested in sound for sound’s sake, apart from its elaborate musical context. They are interested in the infinite meaning that can be conveyed through a single note. Poetry is doing something very similar: as Gergely Balla said, the point of poetry is to draw attention to individual words with multi-valent meanings, to build worlds out of a distilled selection of particulars. Despite their differences, artists are united in their effort to model and express through atomistic elements.

It just so happens that one of the luminaries of this genre, Wadada Leo Smith, was also at Yale this semester, as the autumn’s artist in residence at Yale’s Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration. Smith’s accolades include the Doris Duke Artist Award in 2016, a nomination for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Music, and rave reviews in jazz magazines like Downbeat and the Jazz Times’ Critics Poll. I was very lucky to attend his November 7 workshop in the Davenport Common Room, in which he outlined his philosophy of language and rhythm.

Smith was born in Mississippi, the heartland of the blues. His stepfather Alex “Little Bill” Wallace, a trailblazing Delta blues guitarist, introduced him to jazz. While Smith is in conversation with Black American heritage, he has never really fit into the traditional jazz paradigm, which can have a somewhat staid view of song structure and tonality despite its improvisational focus. Instead, he aligned with a group of avant-garde artists who sought to upend the principles of music, asking what kind of sonic language emerges when you dispense with predictable tone, rhythm, and replicability in composition. 

For those who have never listened to free music, here’s a quick crash course: before performing, the ensemble onstage may have some organizing principles in mind – a unifying tone, an image that they want to realize sonically, a mechanistic scheme of how their music should evolve. But ultimately, every musician enters this organic act of creation without knowing what music will emerge, free from any prescribed key, harmony, or rhythm. To an unaccustomed ear, it can sound cacophonous (and truthfully, it’s sometimes hard to enjoy even as a familiar listener). But the trick is to change how you listen. As Smith emphasized during his lecture, he doesn’t see music as having time extension at all: it only exists “in the present moment.” We are not meant to decipher each phrase in the context of what we’ve heard before. Instead, we should approach music like a meditation and simply let it wash over us in real time.

Smith has also made creative strides in developing medium-bending musical notation. Drawing from Indonesian, African, European, and religious traditions, he invented a language of musical scoring called Ankhrasmation. These scores are meticulously designed pieces of visual art, composed of colorful signs and symbols that performers use to create music “whose dimensions are realized in the present moment.” He calls this “art-object creation.” 

The idea of art-object creation collapses the gap between poetry (literary object) and music (a time-extended act of creation). Platon Krakataev’s and Smith’s projects approach this collapse from opposite poles. The former attempts to add dynamism to a static set of words, while the latter tries to create music from a variety of formal inspirations that draw elements from poetry. But at their core, both approaches to art generate new communication systems that are not exclusively based in language or in sound. They live at the boundary between modes, going under the hood to examine the tensions between unit and whole, composition and spontaneity, that underlie our everyday acts of meaning-making.

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