"Would you hear of an old-time sea-fight?" is an excerpt from Greg's book on the art and evolution of piano recital programming. Specifically, it's from his chapter on transcriptions, which is itself a transcription of Whitman poems. Greg transcribed selections from Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself," retitling the work "Song of the Transcription." Greg's set of poems are written from the perspective of the "transcription," and they detail the plight and evolving purpose of transcriptions over the past 170 years.

"Would you hear of an old-time sea-fight?" is an especially bloody account of the battle between a Strauss waltz transcription and a concert pianist, told from the perspective of the transcription.

Would you hear of an old-time sea-fight?

by Walt Whitman / Greg Anderson


Would you hear of an old-time sea-fight?
Would you learn who won by the light of the spot and the stage?
List’ to the yarn of the pianist and I, from an era long gone by.

My foe was no skulk of the stage I tell you,
His was me, the surly Strauss transcription, and there is no tougher or testing, 
     and never was, and never will be;
Upon the ignited lights he came horribly raking me.

His hands drew near, the inches narrowing, his fingers touch’d,
My opening lash’d fast upon his own hands.

I had some trillion notes composed in craze,
For the left hand I demand two octave bounds, they do their deed, faltering his left and baffling his right.

We fight from the start, fight on and on,
Ten o’clock at night, with the audience immersed, his doubt on the gain, and five missing notes reported,
The master-at-bench becomes imprisoned in my labyrinth of horrendous complexities 
     without a chance to save himself.

His transit to and from the keyboard’s edge is now slow’d by his physical tension,
He cowers to the impending passages for which his practice was weak.

My score blows further fire,
He asks himself if he’ll surrender?
If his colors are struck and the fighting done?

Now I laugh content; but then, I hear the voice of my pianist’s terror,
I have not struck, he composedly cries, I have just begun my part of the fighting.

Out, his third arm appears to use!
One arm is directed by himself against my polyphonic amplification,
Another minds its own at my shindig bass and the third aims musketry at my decks.

To the top I fed him a phantasmagoric setting, Strauss’s song towering above all,
The audience electrified at such an exhibition of power.

Not a moment’s cease.
The repeated notes fast on his knuckles, my glissandi eat away at his flesh.
One of his knuckles has been shot away, we both begin to sink.

Serene though stands the little pianist,
He is not hurried, his voice is neither high nor low,
His eyes are the battle-lanterns that see the end.

Towards quarter after ten there under the spotlight I surrender to him.


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