Hal Willner interviews Allen Ginsberg on Harry Smith

Hal Willner and Harry Smith at Naropa Institute, Boulder Colorado, July 1989. photo c. Allen Ginsberg Estate

Marianne Faithful, Hal Willner and Harry Smith at Naropa Institute, Boulder Colorado, July 1989. photo c. Allen Ginsberg Estate

Yesterday’s post on Harry got us thinking about this one of Hal interviewing Allen. This text is excerpted from a much larger interview based around Allen’s recording history, done June 29, 1993, that Willner conducted for the Holy Soul Jelly Roll liner-notes released in 1994. An edited-down version of this was published in Think of the Self Speaking: Harry Smith – Selected Interviews by Elbow/Cityful Press. Since we have the whole thing here, and space not being an issue, we thought we’d post it in its entirety. Huge thanks & shout-outs to Randy Roark who did the transcription for this as well as many other Ginsberg projects. [2019 update – this transcription is no longer available in its entirety but only as an excerpt – see below]

Before getting to the interview, we wanted to point out the most recent publication dedicated to Harry – Harry Smith:The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular, edited by Andrew Perchuk and Rani Singh. It’s a compendium of transcribed lectures from conferences hosted by the Getty Center some years ago. Though much of it (tho’ not all) is fairly dry academic analysis, it’s got the most complete biographical info’ on him available and has the single best color-reproductions of any of Harry’s work we’ve yet seen.

Pop Matters give it a good thorough review

Cover Photo: c. Brian Graham

Ok, so now on to the interview:

…When I was in San Francisco I heard from a filmmaker –Jordan Belson — about a fabulous alchemical magician painter-filmmaker, Harry Smith, who had been a student or descendant of Aleister Crowley and had Crowley manuscripts and had created the first materials for casting oil colors on a mirror through a projector and projecting it on the wall, and that grew into the light shows later on, the mixed media light shows with the technique for projecting on … remember they used to have the sort of tie-dye colors moving together.

HW: In the Joshua Light Show.

AG: Yeah. Well that was Harry Smith’s equipment originally, which he left to Jordan Belson and others in San Francisco, from the Berkeley Renaissance of 1948.

I saw this old guy with black and white beard….

HW: So what year is this again?

AG: Nineteen-sixty. [And he was] making little marks listening to Thelonius Monk and sort of notating something. For some reason or other from the description and from the concentration of his activity and his locale I decided maybe that’s Harry Smith, so I went up and introduced myself. And he said, yes, that was his name. And I said, “Well, what are you doing there?” And he said, “I’m trying to determine where Monk comes in on the beat — before or after. What are the recurrent syncopations, what is the pattern, the mathematical pattern of syncopations in his solos and how they vary?” And I said, “Why are you doing that?” And he said, “Well, I’m keeping track of his time because I’m using his music as background to films that I’m making frame-by-frame – handpainting frame-by-frame, all collage drawings…


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