“Haunted” by Poe: A 13 Year Tribute (Part I)
Music recordings from practically any genre have a history, whether broad, personal, or both. Many accounts about recordings read as fairly straightforward stories, with myths that end up forming around them, whether for individual songs or entire albums.
Some recordings are even more deeply embedded within their historical contexts, whether it’s Bruno Walter’s performance of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic, just before the Nazi Anschluss in 1938; Leonard Bernstein leading members of multiple orchestras in a relatively better-known Ninth Symphony, performed in Berlin with the fall of the infamous Wall in 1989; or U2 recording Achtung Baby just a year later in the same city, in some ways trying to articulate something about the then-current geopolitical situation, with decades of entrenched Cold War paranoia and posturing rapidly falling with Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe.
Of course, personal histories can go into albums as well. The Achtung Baby example also illustrates such a possibility, with U2 on the verge of breaking up during its creation, and emerging with a new sound and renewed strength to continue to the present day. Listeners might read even more personal individual histories into such recordings, depending on their contextual knowledge. For whatever reason, I do this with Bernstein’s recording of the final scene from Richard Strauss’ opera Salome, committed to disc with the Orchestre National de France and singer Montserrat Caballé in 1977.
Caballé herself is at her peak… one of the finest Salome performers, in my opinion. However, especially considering that “Bernstein does Salome” seems like a very promising listening prospect (and an object of obsessive searching in pre-Internet days, when I first heard about its existence), the result ends up sounding lackadaisical, with a sense of forced drama. I remember feeling disappointed upon hearing it the first time, expecting something akin to Bernstein’s more truly thrilling accounts of other works (as can be found in many of his Mahler recordings). But what also came to mind was the fact that Bernstein recorded this during a period of serious personal turmoil, which somehow seems to manifest itself on the recording; he wasn’t at his peak here, although the performances of five Strauss Lieder were up to Bernstein standard. Of course, my detection of such a residual personal history assumes that Bernstein somehow “embodies” the recording, or even the music, admittedly a risk considering all the people who also contributed to it (with Strauss as the original musical creator, and Oscar Wilde having providing the inspirational text).
With smaller groups of musicians, or even single ones, identifying embodied personal and historical contexts can seem much easier. Based on my engagement with it, such a tendency feels quite palpable on the album Haunted (2000), self-produced and assembled on a Macintosh 9600 by singer / songwriter Poe (née Anne Danielewski, with various sources giving 1967 or 1968 as her birth year ), and released on the very apt date of 31 October. And yet, befitting the album’s title and release date, identifying an easily graspable “essence” somehow seems elusive, too… almost like an entity we think we can see, but that manages to evaporate before we can say to ourselves, without a reasonable doubt, that we did indeed see or hear something discernible and real.
Haunted acts as a complement to the book House of Leaves (which, admittedly, I’ve yet to read), written by Poe’s brother Mark (1966 – ). Poe also makes the album a tribute to their father Tadeusz Danielewski (1921-1993), a renowned theatre director; a filmmaker; and an acting teacher whose students included such names as James Earl Jones, Martin Sheen, and Sigourney Weaver.
Some of the top search results on Google for the elder Danielewski include a Wikipedia article, an entry from Internet Movie Database (IMDB), and some obituaries in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times from around the time of his passing. Another interesting one is from a forum on the family website for a Huntington family, which has a photograph of Danielewski pointing his finger while directing something. As the forum posting states:
The gesture in this photograph fills me with nostalgia and affection. I have had that finger pointed at me in exactly that manner at some of the most meaningful, educational moments of my life as an artist.
One can gather from the photograph alone that Danielewski possessed a high level of intensity. By all accounts, it carried over into his homelife, including the way he related to his children. A 2001 Chicago Tribune joint interview with Poe and Mark describes the transient nature of their youth, given Danielewski’s keen interest in traveling the world to make his films and the financial instability that would result. Also mentioned is the toll taken on them (and, perhaps as well, determination instilled in them) by his high intellectual and artistic leanings. As Poe states:
My father was this extremely compelling artist-guy… Everything mundane was made epic by him. Could Mark have written this book without growing up with that guy? Absolutely not. He’d play us [Ingmar] Bergman films when we were 8 or 9, telling us, `Everything falls apart.’ Entropy — that was a big word for him — entropy. `Everything must rot,’ he’d say. `Trees rot, stars rot.’
Haunted likely wouldn’t have emerged without her father’s influence, either, whether intellectually or emotionally. A quote attributed to her on IMDB underscores the deleterious effect it could have as well:
I’d often find my dad’s voice echoing in my brain, paralyzing me while working. If you’re not careful, those critical voices can cut you off from doing anything.
For Haunted, the result is a meditation that centres on this complicated relationship, running the gamut of strong emotions that one could read as anger, defiance, acceptance, understanding, and love. Or, as Poe states in the joint interview with her brother, “youthful anger, if you allow it to be voiced, will mutate into a kind of respect and sadness.” This seems quite clear in the arc between the taunting “Not a Virgin” mid-album, and the almost ethereal melancholy of “If You Were Here” at the album’s conclusion (depending on which version one has; another concludes with a reprise of the seductive “Hey Pretty”).
Some of the songs have an ambiguous air. Whom exactly is Poe addressing? Her father? Other people in her life? Or, given the almost spectral nature of the album’s title and overall atmosphere, does Poe leave it deliberately vague? Whatever the case, Poe’s father himself contributes to the album as well, providing oblique or purportedly direct commentary on the songs and the ideas they express.
A few years after Danielewski’s passing, Poe and her brother found cassettes with some of their father’s musings on various topics. Excerpts from them ended up on Haunted, usually between songs or occasionally embedded within them. It’s interesting to note that, when the ability to record sound emerged near the end of the death-obsessed Victorian Era, one likely had the impression of hearing disembodied voices, almost akin to spirits. In the case of Haunted, which appeared around the end of the century that followed, someone who has passed appears every so often alongside the living Poe. This trait lends an already ghostly album an even greater degree of hauntedness. Danielewski’s influence and impact on his daughter is so great that Haunted requires his actual presence, and an apparently serendipitous discovery allowed this to happen.
My own serendipitous discovery of this album happened when my former spouse and I got together over 10 years ago, and she wanted to play it for me. I remember feeling impressed by it, as it sounded like no “rock” album (for want of a better shorthand phrase) I had heard before. No album is perfect, of course, but this was way up there for me overall; a tour de force in terms of scope, ambition, range of emotion, and quite possibly personal musical resonances tying with my “classical and opera” sensibilities. Interestingly, on a Ning page for Poe, one of the first things mentioned is the appreciation both Poe and her brother developed for music as a “universal language.”
I learned at a very young age that every one speaks a different language. Even if two people are both speaking English, their personal and cultural histories come into play—and not always amicably. Music, as a means of communication, can provide a way of transcending those differences.
Whether one thinks in that manner, or in a slightly different way with musics of the world potentially sharing some kind of universal grammar, it’s interesting how this notion of “universality” appears so early on in the text of Poe’s Ning page. Indeed, the number of musical genres attributed to Haunted indicates some degree of convergence among different genres. Wikipedia’s webpage for the album lists alternative rock, electronica, pop rock, and experimental rock. The page for Poe herself also includes trip hop, hard rock, and R&B. I suppose some might detect other influences. Of course, the last.fm page for Poe lists a riot of possible genres, including (given where her father came from) “Polish hip-hop.”
As mentioned before, while I’ve found nothing that refers specifically to “classical” influences on Poe, I can detect some vague affinities with such a “sound” as well. They’re admittedly subjective, and I run the risk of being completely wrong about them, as they seem to tie in with my own musical obsessions. And yet, I somehow know the connections are there, becoming clearer to me as I decided to revisit the album through headphones and more careful listening (which included pulling the headphone jack out slightly to pick up additional nuances). The second posting will go into further analysis of such affinities, attempting to delve deeper into the album’s delights and dangers. Tying in with this posting’s initial notion of recordings’ personal and historical contexts, the second one will also explore the album’s sublime aspects; how they make us contemplate the nature and complexity of our most important relationships, and how can they tie in with broader historical contexts, even stretching back many years and generations.