Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared? Ah, where have they gone, the amblers of yesteryear? Where have they gone, those loafing heroes of folk song, those vagabonds who roam from one mill to another and bed down under the stars. Have they vanished along with footpaths, with grasslands and clearings, with nature?
Let’s talk about slowness, shall we, and its place in art, the show of confidence and acceptance of risk that are implicit in dialing down the pace of a work. Now, Kundera is right that the pleasure of slowness isn’t as widely appreciated as it should be, but there are still “loafing heroes of folk song” carrying the banner. Anna-Lynne Williams is one, by way of her work as Lotte Kestner in particular.
My purpose here is not to play music critic beyond saying she’s got a new album called Off White that you’d do well to purchase. Well, and that everything else she’s recorded and released, all the way back to the Trespassers William days. The songs’ paces vary, as do the elaborateness of the arrangements, but she has an unerring sense of where a song’s drama lies, and how to convey that through its strongest lines. It should come as no surprise that Williams is a poet (she has three books to her credit, the most recent being this year’s Blind Accidents).
I mention the risk baked into this style of performance, and I don’t think it’s the wrong word. It’s not the only style she employs with Lotte Kestner, but there’s frequently a spareness to these songs that sees her facing the risks head on. She knows what it is to sit down at the piano or with your acoustic guitar and play, unaccompanied. Fumble a chord change and it’s hard to miss. Sing without intrusive studio effects or harmony or backing vocals and you’ll realize there’s nowhere to hide your voice’s failings. That type of stripped-down arrangement means you also need the insight to uncover subtleties in a song’s composition and bring them to life. It’s painstaking work, but the results justify the effort.
Such patience is invaluable for a songwriter and performer (be on the lookout for her numerous, often revelatory covers of other artists’ songs, taking in everyone from The National to J. Tillman to Beyonce). And she applies that same patience, intelligence and reflectiveness to her time as a reader and, naturally, a poet, as you’ll see in what she’s reading (and how and why), and in her poem, “In the Fall”:
What are you reading?
I have spent the year 2017 reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (and I’m only halfway through! But I read really slowly for serious novels, I sit with some sentences or words for quite some time). I’m also getting married next week so I read a book on marriage this year while reading the DFW, I don’t usually read stuff like that but I found it helpful! It was called The New Rules of Marriage.
Why are you reading it?
I bought Infinite Jest over a decade ago when I was reading all of DFW’s short stories and essay collections. A few years ago I read his first novel, The Broom of The System, but I was saving Infinite Jest, partly because of its length, and partly because I just wanted to savor it when I really had time for it. This is the first year that I haven’t gone on tour in my whole adult life, as I suffered a nerve injury last year and have done a lot of recuperating this year in physical therapy. So it felt like the right time to read a 1000-page book. Plus some friends of mine were reading it as a group which I thought would kick me in the heels, but I fell behind the group quite a bit, though I imagine I’m not the only one. I read Proust’s 7 volume Remembrance of Things Past right out of college, that took a couple of years and it remained my favorite book. I knew Infinite Jest might be the only book that would rival it in its importance to me, so I saved it for what feels like an important pivotal time in my life. It’s hard to even call it a book, it’s like it contains all of the humor and insecurity and genius of one of the worlds greatest writers who we have lost. It is mind-boggling the things that he came up with and the tender way that he expressed it. I hope it takes me another year to finish it! I am consistently moved and repulsed by it.
On the horizon: I just released my third collection of poetry. And my new album had a proper release in Japan so I’m hoping maybe touring over there is in the future. As I said, I finally given myself a bit of a break this last year from constant recording and performing. Getting back in touch with the other parts of myself. Which ultimately, hopefully, will contribute to new music and poetry.
in the fall
in the fall
how the trees
are surrounded by puddles
the bright leaves like a photograph of what was
but that begin to fade right away so they cannot say
look at how beautiful i was;
when i met you
i still had parts of dandelion
in my hair
because i still made wishes;
when i fell asleep
i was starting to form
the perfect melody
like a dam filled with flowers
but someone picked them
in the night;
there are so many things stolen while everyone is watching;
i saw my face
and my shoulders
soft in the steam
of the bathroom mirror,
i saw a ghost.
- Photos courtesy of Anna-Lynne Williams
- “In the Fall” courtesy of Anna-Lynne Williams, from the book Blind Accidents