between aspects of reality that conventional languages and outlooks ordinarily keep apart.
On a bitter winter evening this past February, I left the bustling warmth of New York City’s Grand Central Station and headed to Scandinavia House. The wind blew frigid air at me in a sideways slant, the sort of weather that usually keeps me pinned to my chair at home. But there was a concert on, and I’d arranged to meet a fellow named Michael Douglas Jones.
The concert, by a group called Skogensemble, was playing music I’d never heard of. As for the composers, I knew the name of only one, Ellen Lindquist, and hers only in connection with Douglas Jones and his organization Companion Star.
I looked forward to meeting Douglas Jones, and, whatever the music might be like, I figured it would be fun to hear a concert in such an unexpected place. It also didn’t hurt that Scandinavia House has an onsite restaurant where I could order Swedish meatballs (for which I have an unaccountable weakness), and have a glass of wine before the event.
The evening at Scandinavia House was full of wonders. Douglas Jones was a thoroughly enjoyable and interesting fellow. He spoke with passionate animation about having had the chance to take part, as a performer, in the creation of musical compositions. Companion Star is devoted to that ideal.
I left the experience yet more curious about Companion Star’s dream seminar/drömseminarium project, which takes its texts from the poetry of Tomas Tranströmer. I resolved to buy a book of Tranströmer’s poems, but failed to follow through. When Tranströmer won the Nobel Prize, I felt the sting of my sloth and ordered a book on the spot. As happens all too often with Amazon up here, weeks went by, and the book didn’t arrive.
I finally got myself to a bookstore, chose a book of translations of Tranströmer recommended by a trusted friend, and settled down to read. “Awakening is a parachute jump from the dream,” began Prelude. Pretty good hook, I thought, and I read on.
I’ve been to Sweden, though only once, in summertime, a student’s Eurail Pass in hand. Unaware that it takes longer to go the length of Sweden than it does from Hamburg to Cannes, I took a train to the Arctic Circle.
In The Blue House, Tranströmer describes a summer night as “a night of radiant sun.” In Epilogue’s December, though, “The way here is stony:/daylight waits until noon/to reveal winter’s coliseum,/lit by unreal clouds.”
Sweden’s landscape, its weather and its seasons, its rowanberries, bats, and moths (Lamento's “small pale telegrams from the world') are in the marrow of Tranströmer’s poems. From Solitary Swedish Houses:
A tangle of black spruce
and smoking moonbeams.
Here’s the croft lying low
and not a sign of life.
Till the morning dew murmursTranströmer’s sense of dark and light are built out of his world’s particulars, as in this from On the Outskirts of Work:
and an old man opens
—with a shaky hand—his window
and lets out an owl.
Outside the lamps the September night is totally dark.In Winter’s Formulae, he writes, “This is not Africa./This is not Europe./This is nowhere but ‘here.’//And what was ‘I’/is only a word/in December’s dark mouth.” From that deeply specific darkness, Tranströmer looks toward the return of light:
When the eyes adjust, there is faint light
over the ground where large snails glide out
and the mushrooms are as numerous as the stars.
Tranströmer slips between landscape and dreamscape, fashioning his own version of life’s sense. In Dream Seminar, he writes of “A bedroom. Night./The darkened sky is flowing through the room.”
So rough, but nimble-fingered.
From their ample bottles
greenery will foam this spring.
The book that someone fell asleep from liesTranströmer’s poetry has been translated into English repeatedly. Robert Hass’s task in editing his book was to choose the best. In his preface, Hass wrote that he worried
sprawling wounded at the edge of the bed.
The sleeper’s eyes are moving,
they’re following the text without letters
in another book—
illuminated, old-fashioned, swift.
that a book like this, containing so many voices, might suffer from the loss of a sense of unity in its tone. But it is my impression that Tranströmer’s voice, spare and clear, and the undistractable clarity and intensity of his vision have carried those small differences in tone.
Companion Star’s dream seminar/drömseminarium, created “collaboratively through improvisation,” will add to the canon of translation, but differently, as the project uses music and movement to convey Tranströmer’s vision and voice. I’m eager for a chance to hear and see the results.
In Vermeer, one of the texts used in dream seminar/drömseminarium, Tranströmer writes
It hurts to go through walls, it makes you sick
but it’s necessary.
The world is one. But walls . . .
And the wall is part of yourself—
Whether you know it or not it’s the same for everyone,
everyone except little children. No walls for them.
The clear sky has set itself on a slant against the wall.
It’s like a prayer to emptiness.
And the emptiness turns it face to us
“I am not empty, I am open.”
from Companion Star's dream seminar/drömseminarium
Jan Garbarek: It's OK to Listen to the Gray Voice
Ellen Lindquist: Nakoda
Allen Pettersson: Symphony No. 8
Karin Rehnqvist: Där korpen vitnar (Where the raven blanches)
Sven-David Sandström: To see a world
For a Spotify playlist, click on Dreaming in Swedish.
The composers and compositions on both lists are not ones with which I was familiar, but I chose a selection of 20th and 21st century composers that held appeal for me. On Spotify, the ones included are Rolf Martinsson (Spotify erroneously omits the ‘n’), Allan Pettersson, Karin Rehnqvist, Sven-David Sandström, and Benjamin Staern. (I was not able to find any of the Skogensemble composers represented on Spotify.) The Spotify list includes the full jazz album by the Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek on which the titles are all quotations from Tranströmer poems (thanks to George Mattingly for identifying this to me). I encourage readers to identify other composers to include on the list.
The quotation and more information about Companion Star and a treasure trove of information about dream seminar/drömseminarium can be found here.
Credits: The quotation at the head of the post can be found here. The excerpts from Tranströmer’s poems, as well as the quotation from Robert Hass’s preface, can be found here. With the exception of the images of the kantele and the dictionary, which can be found here and here, the photographs are my translation of Tranströmer's landscape in the language of the Hudson Valley hills.