Book review: Jackson Mac Low’s ‘Doings’

Doings

Doings: Assorted performance pieces, 1955-2002
Jackson Mac Low
Granary Books, 2005
266 pages plus audio CD

Was Jackson Mac Low a poet, a composer, or a visual artist?

Yes he was.

No surprise then that Mac Low’s compositions took inspiration from a staggering variety of sources: Buddhist sutras, dancers he knew, other composers, Zen, instrumentalists, poets, and the Bible.

Granary Books publisher Steve Clay writes that Mac Low wanted this book to facilitate further performances of the compositions. Performance instructions and explanatory notes detail Mac Low’s thinking and his compositional methods. One sees clearly the influence of John Cage throughout. Indeed, Mac Low and Cage collaborated for quite some time.

Mac Low’s compositional techniques take a multitude of approaches: he sometimes created verbal scores based on anagrams of the dedicatee’s name. He threw dice, chose numbers chosen from the Rand Corporation’s table A Million Random Digits, and even placed an IBM punch card on a piece of paper and rubbed a pencil over the holes.

Doings presents 3 dozen-plus scores, arranged chronologically. Many are suitable for framing. They take an array of forms: Word drawings, typescripts, letters and digits written on 3×5 cards, and columns and rows of words written on graphing paper.

This book and companion audio CD allow the reader to see and hear these compositions as they are realized. In effect, the reader becomes part of the performance. The pieces reward repeated listening: One realizes how skillfully the performers navigate through the many options Mac Low’s scores present to them. Like jazz and improv musicians, the speakers must create, on the spot, while listening to and responding to each other.

While some compositions require voices, others call for instruments, and many require both. Most of the recordings include Mac Low as a performer and a number include his longtime collaborator and companion Anne Tardos, who helped produce this book.

Doings is several books at once, Steve Clay writes. “Literary theorists and historians will find a key to understanding the work of ‘the principal experimental poet of his time’ (in the words of Jerome Rothenberg). Verbal/visual literary materialists will discover a remarkable collection of graphic texts and scores that reward close looking. Young poets will find a sourcebook for creating and performing new language arts—determining for themselves what can be done.”

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