Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Words Project: Process and Evolution

I wish I could say that I've been a lifelong reader of poetry and that this venture evolved naturally out of that. This couldn't be less true, actually. I've always loved reading fiction, but never could achieve the quietness of mind that poetry demands. I read and memorized the requisite poetry fed to us in school, but beyond that I wasn't exposed to much of it. Given how marginalized it is in our culture it's easy to ignore. I can't even say that I was ever very interested in song lyrics, even. I've always loved listening to music of any style with singers, but like many musicians I tended to ignore lyrical elements in favor of musical ones.

I spent a number of years in New York in search of what my own contributions here would be, dipping my feet into as many waters as I possibly could. I was involved with a few groups with singers and started to feel a shortage of new vocal pieces that involved lyrics (rather than wordless vocals), and many of the newer works I heard didn’t have very challenging lyrics or content. Having long loved the art-song tradition, I set out to find some initial poems to set, and started calling singers over to sing through my work. The directness to the human voice and its mysteries were thrilling for me, and I found myself thinking and working differently than ever before. Fortunately, I also began to discover a deep well of talented young singers eager to take on new material, which furthered my interest in this venture.

The first pieces I set were by Lithuanian-Polish poet and Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz, whose work I’ve continued to set to this day. There’s a certain simplicity to his work that makes it highly typical of the kind of work I enjoy setting. The ideas in his work are by no means simple, but the use of language has a direct quality that makes his work conducive to musical setting. When poetry reaches a certain level of abstraction, there’s no longer room for the kind of music that I would like to write. Similarly, there’s a lot of poetry that tells something akin to literate story, which also doesn’t intrigue me as a composer. It’s difficult to define what lies in the middle of these two extremes, but I do tend to know whether I can set a work within the first few lines of it.

I’ve sometimes wondered whether it’s the poetry that I set to music or music I set to poetry. It’s probably a little of both… There have been times when everything has started simply with the words in front of me, a musical gesture or phrase that arises from the first stanza, with nothing else preconceived. Other times, there is a more intentional process, where I’ll employ a musical idea I’ve been toying with or use a certain stylistic notion in crafting a piece.

I don’t tend to dwell too much on the meaning of a poem before I start working with it. Perhaps this is out of impatience or over-eagerness, but I feel strongly that my job is not to filter the meaning of any work for the listener. I try my best not to interpret these poems or put any sort of definitive stamp on them. I simply want to color them and make them come alive in a unique way. Great works of poetry, like great works of music, can mean different things to us at different times. This is one of the beauties of art in genearal. Certain works can fill us with sadness one hour and be completely exhilarating the next. We bring our own experiences to whatever we take in, and it’s not my intention to subjugate this process by governing the experience of a poem. By the time it lands in my hands, the poem is a complete work of art on its own. It doesn’t need my efforts to be read or to thrive. It already exists in its full flowering, and this is a humbling thing that I always try to keep in mind.

One of the greatest challenges of this genre for me continues to be how to fit all this into the jazz continuum, one that is based on improvisation. Many of the longer works I’ve set demand long forms and it’s difficult to know where improvisation should fit in, or whether there’s a place for it at all. Personally, it’s unappealing to simply use words as a launching point for extended improvisation. I’ve always wanted to frame my work primarily around the poems themselves, and always have them be at the center of my work. Thus, I want any solos or improvisation to function somehow within the poems themselves, to make this all feel like one, creating the illusion that the words and the music came out of the same mind. All the principles of tension and release in music really come to the forefront. Sometimes improvised sections function as a release and other times they build tension or intensity from a place where there was not before. Other times they simply function as a breath within the poem, a chance for the listener to take in what has come before.

Melodically, my own voice tends to guide me when I write. I do my best to forget my background as an instrumentalist and try to think like a singer. I also keep the use of melody in everyday speech in mind. We all use varying degrees of pitch inflection and rhythm when we speak, and thus we’re so easily able to accept lyrics that are sung as a natural extension of everyday speech. Perhaps this is what makes so many of us want to be singers, to further the expression that language allows us, and possibly communicate things where speech falls short. To this effect, I tend to use mostly close intervals in my writing that mirror the intervals of everyday speech.

Words Project III: Miniatures comprises material that I’ve written spanning back to 2006, primarily songs that had never fit into the framework of what I’ve done previously both live and in the studio. The project started quite spontaneously…. I called Michael Leonhart to sing through some songs I had written for male voice, and he hit the record button and we started tracking. A few months later, vocalist Sunny Kim was in New York, and I decided to bring her into Michael’s studio to record a few things. Based on how well these two experiences went, not long after I chose material for an entire record of short songs.

Sometimes I had conceived arrangements and instrumentation before going into the studio, and other times these things came together as we worked. Most of the tracking was done individually, which allowed Michael and I plenty of room for editing and experimentation. I wanted to create a unique world of sound for each piece on the record, and used a lot of uncommon instruments and sounds in order to achieve this. Sometimes I had a good idea of what a piece would end up sounding like and other times tracks unfolded themselves from something more unknown.

The miniature aspect to each piece is really what holds this record together through all the changes of texture and instrumentation. These are musical portraits or glimpses, maybe akin to a collection of short poems or stories. I’ve always loved listening to collections of short pieces, whether they be art song or piano preludes. I love the challenge of creating interest in a piece quickly, constructing something that is short yet feels complete, taking a more microscopic look at the arc of a piece of music, and connecting a collection of short pieces to one another in order to assemble a larger work.

The broad mix of styles reflects the many kinds of music that have shaped me, perhaps never so apparently as on this record. There are very few improvised solos on any of the tracks, but to me the way this record was recorded gives it the feel of a jazz record, and most everybody who appears on it comes from a jazz background, although they all bring much more than that to the table. In any case, I’ll leave this to the listeners to decide where they want to put this album…

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