Saturday, May 23, 2009

New idea: Poetry Scores Travel Experiential Auction

The other night while dining on beef brisket and enjoying Hop Rod Rye at the home of John Eiler, I hit upon what I take it to be a good fundraising idea.

Every year Poetry Scores organizes an Experiential Auction as a fundraiser. We hit up our talented and locally famous friends to donate unique experiences, and then people bid on the privilege of having that experience with that person.

This year, I want to add a travel category. I want for our friends around the country, and indeed across the globe, the donate the experience of spending two or three nights on their couch or in their guest bedroom, with at least one homecooked meal thrown into the offer.

I think between the core Poetry Scores folks we can line up pro bono B&B experiences in many places where one would like to travel. Since a local host with knowledge of the landscape and downhome hospitality comes with the offer, I would say the value of the experience is slightly higher than the value of the lodging, which we could conservatively price at $75 a night.

So the experience would be worth $150-$225 plus the meal and the local host intangible, making each package worth, say, $250-$325.

If each travel experience went for, on average, $100 each on auction and we lined up, say, twenty choice destinations (which would be easy to do), then we could make $2,000 on the travel packages alone, while offering to our friends and donors a bunch of fun bargain travel experiences. That alone would pay to print our next project.

Since travelers and local hosts would, in most cases, then blossom into friends, we also would continue doing something we are pretty good at, which is introducing people to one another and to new experiences - helping facilitate and deepen intimacies - making good things happen.

So; all, ya'll in St. Louis - where do you want to go? And, all y'all elsewhere - want to host a couple of travelers for two or three nights? To help raise money for Poetry Scores? To help translate poetry into other media, and thereby help the ancient art survive in the age of digital multimedia?

Let us know! brodog[@]


The image is of Poetry Scores cofounder Matt Fuller on our stretch limo golfcart at Four Seasons Scottsdale when we were composing our score to Go South for Animal Index. I don't have travel media hookups like that anymore, and I don't think Matt has anywhere to put you in his Hollywood bungalow, but I think the picture gets those travel juices flowing!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Translating an Indian mound into art and music

I saved a copy of this arresting photograph the day it first appeared on Thom Fletcher's Flickr site, figuring I would need it one day, and I was right.

Cindy Tower, who contributed to the 2008 Poetry Scores Art Invitational, is making this Indian mound the subject of a unique multi-media performance titled "Crescendo" as part of the July 25-26 Art Walk.

Her idea is to get a group of creative musicians, she suggested eleven, and pair them each with a painter. As the musicians improvised together on this compromised Indian mound (said to be the last standing in Mound City), the painters would paint them.

A recording would be made of the July 25 performance, which would be played on July 26 inside the house perched on the moundtop, where the paintings from day one would be displayed. There would then be a third event where all of the paintings would be exhibited and all of the music played.

Cindy has proposed making this third event a benefit for Poetry Scores, if I will help her round up the creative musicians and painters, since that is what we do - gather together creative people who like to hijack one medium and take a ride into another.

Sounds like a great idea to me, and I don't think I will have too much trouble persuading the Poetry Scores board to back me on this, since it is a win/win/win/win/win: We would get to be a part of a creative event, get our name out there a little more, midwife some music and art into being, see the art go to happy homes (for bargain prices, probably, knowing us), and pocket a few quid to help pay for our next project.

The event is being produced, I take it, by Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. Jennifer Gaby from The Contemporary made the connection is why I think this. We have started assembling a list of likely suspects to contribute; inquire within.

Monday, May 18, 2009

A do-over on Les Murray's primitivist self-translation

I have been accused of always looking on the bright side when things don't go my way (often, after a fit of pique and whining), and why not? Every setback is an opportunity to set forth in a different direction, where the going might be better.

St. Louis composer and multi-instrumentalist Frank Heyer balked, respectfully, at the use I had made of one of his fretless guitar improvisations in our score to The Sydney Highrise Variations by Les Murray. He said he thought we would be adding spoken word only, not singing, and that the singing we had added didn't jibe with the way he modulated keys in his composition.

I promptly offered to scratch what I had assembled and start over on that part of the score, and though that wasn't what he was demanding (he wasn't demanding anything), he seemed grateful when I finally convinced him it was perfectly fine with me to let him off the hook.

It makes for an amusing story, as well as a minor setback, because what Frank took to be "singing" was the poet himself making what he described as "mouth music".

Les' biographer, Peter F. Alexander at The University of Sydney, reacted with genuine shock when I told him I had recorded Les Murray making a kind of music with his mouth. Les has a reputation, which he created for himself, of possessing no musicality at all. He may or may not be right about that. His "mouth music" isn't an indication either way, but it is a marvelous reponse - indeed, a primitivist self-translation - of Les' great poem of modernity and vertical space.

Whenever I go back to the beginning on a piece of music based on improvisation, I always inspect my Another Umbrella archive gifted to us so generously by Richard Derrick of San Pedro. I have been going back through the 29-disc archive, thinking about this part of the score, to be titled "In ambigious battle at length".

I think this AU piece just might work. I pair it here with Les' mouth music. Mix them in your mind. What do you think - do these two things belongs together?

Free mp3s

"Frozen Moment"
(Richard Derrick, Paul Roessler)
Another Umbrella

Richard Derrick * guitar
Paul Roessler * keyboard
Recorded at KXLU (Los Angeles), 21 August 1988
Mixed at home (San Pedro), 3 October 2007
Medium: two-track open-reel (soundboard)

"Mouth music"
(Les Murray)
Les Murray

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Silly love songs from the days of Shakespeare

Poetry Scores will always be sweet on BBC Radio 3, since the organization was profiled on the Radio 3 poetry show The Verb when we released the first of our scores, Crossing America by Leo Connellan.

I have done my best to stay in touch with the busy folks at The Verb, with limited success. When I jumped onto the Twitter wagon a few weeks ago, I looked for the show and didn't find it, but did manage to add Radio 3 as a feed.

They use a service that simply announces what show is on at the moment, which is fine by me, especially when I am told - as I was told, first thing this morning - that I could be listening to an Early Music Show devoted to Thomas Campion.

You could call Campion a past master of poetry scores from the times of William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. Campion was one of those Elizabethan/Jacobean worldbeaters who took degrees in law and medicine, was a poet, composer and literary theorist, and even got tangled in the obligatory royal murder subplot.

The poems Campion wrote and scored tended to be lighter fare, the Early Modern equivalent of the "silly love songs" that Paul McCartney reportedly irritated John Lennon by writing, though I'm with Sir Paul by responding, rhetorically, "What's wrong with that?" And Campion coughed up a devotional song/poem with perhaps the most beautiful name for God I can remember having heard: "Author of light".

Sadly, Radio 3 does not archive audio of its shows, as I recall from when we were profiled (I had to charm and coax an assistant at The Verb to bootleg me a copy of the program we were on). I did a bit of searching on YouTube this morning, though, and found performances of three of the songs we heard on The BBC this morning. I like how they represent the wide range of contexts in which this lovely archaic music - the old poetry scores - survives.


This is the folk revival setting, with the flair of The Renaissance Fair - Sweet Amaryllis performing live at the Hudson Valley Mayfaire in New Paltz, NY, on 4 May 2008. Looks like it was a party!

"Never weather-beaten saile"
The venerable church choir survival, in this case the choir at St. Hilary Church, located in a town better known for its ye olde pirates: Penzance, Cornwall.

"The peacefull westerne winde"
And then the art song survival, in this case a nervous lad named Tiago Martins toughing his way through what seems to be a student recital or faculty review. Tiago needs to go drink some mead with Sweet Amaryllis and loosen up, a bit.


I also turned up a couple of stirring performances of Campion poetry scores that didn't make the Radio 3 setlist this morning

"Fain would I wend"
Soparano Valeria Mignaco, leading Alfonso Marin on lute and Adrian Mantu playing the proverbial out of the baroque cello live at Galway Music Festival in September 2008. Note to self: Get your rear end to Galway Music Festival!

"When to her lute Corinna sings"
Soprano Olga Nazaykisnskaya busting it out with Vadim Krasnov on lute; I think Campion and the rowdy men who sang his songs back in the day would approve (wildly) of the bikini screen shot at the end of this photo montage!


Image from some French dude's music page.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Your brother, his hair, black coal, coal tar

The mission of Poetry Scores is to translate poetry into other media. Today I am thinking of other acts of translation - coal into tar, itch into prescription - but it all leads back to Poetry Scores.

This week my dermatologist diagnosed my itchy scalp as psoriasis and prescribed me a shampoo with the unlikely ingredient of coal tar. This made me think, naturally, about Turkish poetry.

Actually, about one Turkish poem, Blind Cat Black by Ece Ayhan; more specifically, one specific poem in its prose poetic sequence, which yokes the images of hair and coal.


... grown. And you used to go to bed with a pharaoh
till the mornings. The rainy months of exile.

Hairpins in your mouth. A bird, it liked to land; stood on his arm
tattooed with monsters.

And your brother used to hold your hair, black coal. A town is visible
when you smile.

Then you ran to a gun "I love you" etched on its muzzle. Ready to bear
this monstrous traveler in hashish.

- Ece Ayhan
- Trans. from Turkish by Murat Nemet-Nejat

So many lines that amaze me, here, but I got an entire winsome country song out of that one line, "And your brother used to hold your hair, black coal."

Free mp3

"Black Coal"
(Ece Ayhan, Chris King, Murat Nemet-Nejat)
Three Fried Men

I made a movie to our poetry score to Blind Cat Black. Kevin Belford has been kind enough to post the clip to the "Black Coal" segment up on that there YouTube. Starring Toyy Davis and Jason Wallace Triefenbach.


The image by Odilon Redon was drawn with coal and is lifted from Ibiblio.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Social networking medium nets me free beer

Last night was supposed to be a night for Poetry Scores - a board meeting and a strategy session - but instead it became a milestone, for me, in social media.

As the 42-year-old father of a 6-year-old who also has a demanding, absorbing dayjob, I - appropriately and electively - have no adult social life to speak of. Or, at least, speaking of it wouldn't take up much time (about a "tweet").

For me and a lot of people like me, social media have become, largely, a simulation of a social life, rather than a meaningul contributor to an actual, third-dimensional social life.

Not for us the cryptic status updates about what we are eating or where we are drinking, because "what my wife cooked for the family" or "cranberry juice in the kitchen while the kid watches iCarly" just isn't something anyone else should be asked to "follow".

So, imagine my surprise, last night, when an abruptly cancelled arts org board meeting and a new songwriting partner who wasn't returning my call (using the archaic social networking medium of the cell phone) left me in an unfamilar place: in an adult social setting, at a tavern, with a laptop connected to the internet, and the intention of leaving that social setting for a similar one that was nearby.

Gazillions of 20-somethings and 30-somethings would shield their eyes in shame at me, at this point, with little more than an "OMG!" that I was even talking about an experience that is, to them, as common as brushing their teeth. But there I was, all set up to issue the status update of a person half my age with a whole lot more on the ball, socially:

Impersonating footloose 20- and 30-somethings, I report my departure from Royale intent for CBGB. Detonating laptop and disappearing from public record at this time.
And guess what! OMG! I walked into the next adult social setting, the South Grand dive bar CBGB (where I love the bartender on Monday nights and the music he plays), and I actually run into somebody who was there because he read my status update and he wanted to see me!

Shazam! This social networking media thing can actually, like, help you network, socially! And there is more! This person who read my status update and walked to the tavern to see me - the talented artist and mensch Bradley Bowers - bought me a beer! OMG! This social networking thing can actually get me drinking free beers!

I don't want to be any younger, really, and I don't want to have a busier adult social life, because that would mean I was less married and less engaged as father. But, still, this is so cool!



Image by Simon Pericich.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Les Murray reading from unpublished work in Sydney

Bolstering my newfound belief in the value of Twitter, a search on the site just turned up video of our man Les Murray reading in the University of Sydney's Fisher Library. The quality of the video and audio are both exemplary.

Les says he is reading "from a book that doesn't exist" and that should appear next year. Many of the new poems are briefer, like his recent series of Poems the Size of Postcards, though a few - including one that is a kind of compendium of trivia - are a bit longer.

The themes are in keeping with the work that has come before. "The Death of Isaac Nathan, 1864" goes into Les' thirst for Australian history, a passion that also underlies his long poem that we are currently scoring, The Sydney Highrise Variations. Another essays his chronic topic of animals, in this case a pet cat.

Les looks a bit tired or unwell and stumbles over a number of lines. His wit is sharp as ever, though. Wrapping up a poem about an historical figure with a very strange name, he quips, "I like 'Sexburger'. A name you can conjure with."

Before Les on the program is Judith Beveridge, billed as a "poet, editor and teacher of poetry writing (also at the University of Sydney)". I liked her stuff quite a bit.

She has a number of grisly poems about sea life and fisherfolk. "The subject matter of some of these poems is a bit brutal and nasty, I must admit," she says. Interestingly, she says she finds writing from experience "tedious" and prefers to invent characters and situations for her poems - quite unlike Les Murray.

In fact, his introduction to the most personal poem he read that night tied together the two poets on the bill. He told an anecdote about his mother losing her memory. After one visit with his mother, Les said, he told his wife, "Never outlive for yourself". He said she challenged him to translate that into Latin.

Les - who knows many languages - said he sought help in doing so and found it in Steven Edgar, "the husband of the previous poet": Judith Beveridge .

The video was produced by University of Sydney and posted by SlowTV, an online multimedia component of an Australian print magazine titled The Monthly.


Image of Les reading (published work, at a completely different event) from somebody's Flickr.

A prostitute, a poet, a name that pain will answer to

Given that the first three long poems we scored are about hitchhiking, a boy prostitute's coming of age, and the psychic dissonance of the atomic bomb, you wouldn't expect Poetry Scores to have a feel-good Mothers Day message, and we really don't, at least not one drawn from our work.

But poets and the musicians who score them have responsibilities that depart from the vocation of the holiday card scribe. We are also here to catalogue the pain. Sometimes, things don't work out the way we might have wished - mothers don't love, mothers don't nurture, mothers develop cancer, mothers die - and these experiences need to be confronted, whether we like it or not.

Taking it from the mother's perspective, on the other hand, there is plenty of pain and terror to accompany the love and caretaking, as these panels by the great Julie Doucet express. They are excerpted from her story "Monkey and the Living Dead," reprinted in Dirty Plotte Number One (still in print, God bless them, with Drawn & Quarterly).

With Julie's permission and for a tiny fee, we used different panels from "Monkey and the Living Dead" to illustrate the CD of our Blind Cat Black poetry score. It's not just that Julie had drawn a black street cat with enormous, vacant eyes that look blind, though that enough would have merited using her work. Her drawings also conjure the stark, scary mood of the imagery of Ece Ayhan's poem, as translated from the Turkish by Murat Nemet-Nejat.

Here is the title poem, where the titular image of the poem appears:

A Blind Cat Black

An absent-minded tightrope walker comes. From the sea of late hours. Blows out a lamp. Lies down next to my weeping side, for the sake of the prophet. A blind woman downstairs. Family. She raves in a language I don't know. On her chest a heavy butterfly, broken drawers in it. My Aunt Sadness drinks alcohol in the attic, embroiders. Expelled from many schools. A blind cat passes in the black street. In its sack a child just dead. His wings don't fit, too big. The Old Hawker cries. A pirate
ship. Has entered the port.

- By Ece Ayhan's poem
- Translated by Murat Nemet-Nejat

It's one (literally) passing image - "A blind cat passes in the black street. In its sack a child just dead." - in a seasick prose poem that starts with an absent-minded tightrope walker and ends with a pirate ship pulling into town, no doubt, to drink and destroy. But it's an image that captures the sense of abandonment and futility that can turn someone into a prostitute.

Or a poet.

I would go so far as to offer this image as a limit case for the condition of futility and abandonment: a blind black street cat carrying in its womb a dead kitten fetus. I know, I know, happy mother's day, right?, but painful conditions exists - unimaginable pain and desolation - and it is one of the responsibilities of the poet to confront those conditions.

I won't say confront and tame those conditions, although the Ece Ayhan's feral cat imagery begs for it. I would say confront and name those conditions.

When we scored this part of Blind Cat Black, I asked Stefene Russell to read the text. Her voice has a coolness, a coldness, that I thought would work, and it did work. In addition to a talented actor, Stefene is a genius of a poet. In fact, we followed up our score to Blind Cat Black (2006) with a score of her atomic bomb poem Go South for Animal Index (2007).

Stefene wrote a profoundly insightful essay about her poem that we used as a preface. As its title, "Naming the Monsters," suggests, this essay touches upon the poet's responsibility to confront what terrifies us. She writes beautifully about "how the Navajos deal with monsters: they call them by their names."

That is also how poets deal with pain. In a certain mood, I would even say that is what poetry mostly is: the endless, restless search for the words to name pain. "A blind cat passes in the black street. In its sack a child just dead." The pain of motherhood and childhood, of burden and abandonment: that is its name, or one of them: certainly, it's a name that pain would answer to. Though it doesn't come when its called. It's a stray. It runs away.

Free mp3

"A blind cat black"
Steve Allain, Stefene Russell
From Blind Cat Black

Friday, May 8, 2009

Technical limitations and the genius of Richard Derrick

Technical limitations explain why this photograph of core Poetry Scores contributing composer and musician Richard Derrick, which I took, sucks.

The day I spent with him and Crane at Redondo Beach, I forgot to bring my digital camera, so we had to make do with an inferior, disposable point-&-click purchased along the concrete boardwalk.

After a cheap film processing job at a convenience store, I had some shots ready to be scanned, but by then the computer in my house that is networked to the scanner had lost its mind.

So, tonight, quite belatedly, I held up a print of a photo of Richard, took a picture of it with our digital camera, and transferred it to my laptop to get it up here. You will notice that the flash cleaved Richard's skull with a silver oval. Oh, well, best I could do.

Richard can relate, this I know, to making the most of technical limitations. We owe his vast archive of music, which he generously provided for our projects, to a physical limitation that emerged in his middle age. It hampered his virtuso playing, which was what sent him back to all of his old tapes, with the instincts of an archivist.

As an editor in the digital age, he was faced with the technical limitations of the analog tapes - for the most part, cassette tapes - that he had been using to document his music since the early 1980s. He has done an amazing job making these old, flawed recordings listenable and (for our purposes) usable.

However, there is one technical limitation which, in my view, he has not been able to overcome: microphone placement in recording drums.

Everyone who has ever been in a rock band will recognize in an instant the sound of a rock band recorded with a room mic. The drums give it away: they lack presence, they lack pop. No matter how inspired the performance, the recording reeks of a rehearsal tape.

I have now listened through all of twenty-nine (29!) CDs that Richard has compiled of his project Another Umbrella and donated for our use. I gig-booked this listening process, making notes as I went along.

Speaking of technical limitations, I am now a family man with an ass-kicker of a day job, so I do almost all of my listening to music for Poetry Scores in the car. So I do my note-taking in the car. Since I am operating a motor vehicle while taking these notes, I use a technique (cf., technical limitations) I learned reviewing movies: taking notes in the dark, writing without looking at what I am writing.

They tend to be very brief, almost telegraphic notes. For example, here are my complete notes to Disc 28:

cinematic bed/dawn
guitar freak w/ drums
room sound w/ drums

There is a good reason the notes are not more detailed, with a track-by-track breakdown. The note "room sound" denotes that problem with the sound of the drums, which renders these recordings - regardless of the quality of the performance - unusable in a poetry score.

It's a shame, in light of the following message from Richard Derrick.

A "request" for your next mp3 posting, whenever that may be: Disc 28, tracks 5-6. It's one jam broken up in two tracks when we switch keys, from a rehearsal at which I played better than I did at the actual gig.
As generous as this man has been to us, I would love to make use of this cherished performance of his on a poetry score, but technical limitations get in the way. I can, however, honor his request for the mp3 posting!

Free mp3s

Another Umbrella

Another Umbrella

Richard Derrick * guitar
Rob Ivon * bass
Bob Lee * drums

Recorded at Bob's garage (Granada Hills), 27 August 1995
Medium: stereo cassette (condensor microphones)

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Who am I singing songs from endangered tongues?

If I'm their "follower," I guess that makes The Smithsonian my "leader," so one of my leaders on Twitter reports that on Tuesday, May 12, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian will host “From Code Talkers to Immersion: Native American Language Summit.”

Some 200 Native language speakers and teachers will get together in our nation's capital to talk about their dying languages.

Kara Briggs turned over some statistics, in reporting on this event - "sobering" doesn't quite capture their effect. Maybe "pulverizing".
The Indigenous Language Institute in Santa Fe, N.M., has documented the decline in Native languages in the United States from 175 in 1997 to 154 today. In 1997, most languages were spoken by people middle-aged and older. Now more than half of Native language speakers are older than 70. Only 20 languages are now routinely spoken to children.
Too bad the federal government doesn't bail out dying languages the way it bails out moribund banks.

I can't say I have done anything to keep alive a Native language, nor learn one, though I do remember speaking to a young Lakota blood one day at a Sun Dance on the Santee Reservation. Santee is tiny, and traditionalists on the res are a struggling minority.

This young blood was from the much larger Rosebud reservation, which had a much larger and more established traditional population. He told me he lived on a part of the reservation where English was seldom spoken and there were people unable to speak it. Lakota was its lingua franca.

I'll never forget the look on his face when he told me, "I can't believe I am standing here right now and speaking to you in English. When the wars come again, like my people say they will come again, I will be trying to kill you."

I did my very best to take that in stride. He honestly didn't seem to mean me any personal harm. He was speaking about prophecy, something larger than either of us and independent of us both. As of now, thank God, the wars were not on.

I have done a fair among of songwriting working with texts translated from Native tongues, including Lakota. Singing a rock song setting of an English translation of a traditional Lakota text obviously does nothing to keep the Lakota language alive, but it does pay homage, at several removes, to the resources of that language and the genius of the people who speak, sing and dream in it.

"Short Life" - which I wrote on my own and recorded twice, with Eleanor Roosevelt and again with Three Fried Men - adapts two Lakota songs recorded, transcribed and translated by the great musicologist Frances Densmore.

Densmore's classic text Teton Sioux Music, available for free download on, documents the Lakota texts along with her translations, but the orthography has some letters I can't reproduce, so I'll just give her English versions.

"An Elk I Am"
By One Feather

an elk
am I
short life
I am living
That gave me the first verse and title of my song, "Short Life," though I inverted the order and flipped it into a question.

Short life
I'm living
Am I an elk?
I'll admit I also was loving the confluence with the traditional Appalachian song "Short Life in Trouble".

"I Am the Fox"
By Old Buffalo

the fox
I am
to seek

This got the same treatment in my song, turned upside down and turned into a question.

Something difficult
I'm seeking
am I a fox?
If I was writing about my adaptation and trying to give the songwriter credit for having done something intentional, I would say making the confident assertions of the traditional texts - "an elk/am I" - into open questions - "am I an elk?" - is a way of making the material contemporary, infusing it with our modern anxieties and uncertainties.

One Feather and Old Buffalo knew exactly who they were, even if their identities in their songs happened to be fantastical animal creatures of the spirit world, whereas I have no clue who I am, which is why I keep looking through all of these ancient traditions, in all of these endangered tongues, trying to seek something that is difficult to find.

Free mp3

"Short Life"
(Frances Desmore, Chris King,
One Feather, Old Buffalo)
Eleanor Roosevelt

From Crumbling in the Rain

Available via digital download.


Image is "In Whose Honor?" by Lakota Eyes from his Deviant Art blog.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Shulamit Ran master class on scoring Sylvia Plath

Yesterday, in crafting a post about a pair of visual artists in Portland, Oregon who have been translating poetry into drawings and costumes, I started mucking around the internet to see what was out there about scoring Sylvia Plath.

We don't have any plans to score anything by Plath, though I must admit the idea began to tempt me after I selected the Portland duo's visual translations of Plath to illustrate my post. Wherever this search leads, I am eternally grateful to have found, on the indispensable, a presentation on scoring poetry by the Israeli-American composer Shulamit Ran.

As part of The San Francisco Exploratorium’s Speaking of Music series, she provides incredibly detailed and intimate accounts of her compositional process in scoring a poem by Sylvia Plath, "Apprehensions," which the composer describes as an "excursion into madness".

I'll provide some pointers on the timeline, should you want to listen to this thing and skip right to the Plath stuff, though I think Ran's presentation is worthwhile in its magically numbered 75:57 entirety.

Starting at about 5:40, we hear her setting of "Apprehensions" (1979) , a demanding but sublime piece dominated by voice and clarinet. This leads to a conversation about the piece, which is consistently interesting, but gets really riveting right around 40:00, when she jumps on the piano and starts illustrating her musical themes and how she develops them. Suddenly, we are in an advanced master class in scoring a poem!

Particular priceless to me, since I always see music in terms of colors, are her descriptions of colors when discussing tones in connection to her compositional choices. She also gives a vivid, practical demonstration of the art of handling theme and variation, which is at the heart of composition in any medium.

This case study of her own compositional process is a treasure, but I also cherish her more general reflections on the relationship of a setting to a poem - of a poetry score to the poetry scored.

"I am interested in the poem being a point of departure to form my own experience with that poem," Shulamit Ran said.

"What I am after, above all, is an autonomous music organism that will stand on its own two feet whether one understands the words or not."

Shulamit was literally born scoring poetry. Consider this, from a well-written profile in an odd publication apparently prepared by a bank:

"As she read to her mother in her native Israel, she would sing the poetry parts. She told her doubting mother that no one demonstrated how it should sound; she could just hear it in her head."
The able host of The San Francisco Exploratorium live event (way back on December 1, 1983) was Charles Amirkhanian, and it was produced immaculately for KPFA radio by Russ Jennings.


Image from that odd bank publication.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Love poems from this girl (and boy) up near Seattle

Stefene Russell is usually right about things, or at least sees things in a way that makes sense to me, so when she sent me a note about "this girl up near Seattle" with a new show "(it's collaborative)" called Love Poems, I took a look.

In Love Poems, Aidan Koch writes on her website, she and her collaborator Paul Wagenblast "will be turning the literature of romance into a visual and corporeal experience for the modern human." As Stefene was hinting, their work is very much in the spirit of Poetry Scores, which has as its mission the translation of poetry into other media.

Aidan is translating poems into drawings, like this one apparently titled and inspired by "Mad Girl's Love Song" by Sylvia Plath. (Other poets they work with include William Blake, Rainer Maria Rilke and Charles Baudelaire: yeah, plenty to talk about with this girl!)

Stefene's brief note to me didn't even mention the drawings, however. She was more enthused about another medium. "There are costumes based on Rilke, Blake, Tennyson," Stefene writes. And, indeed, based on Plath, in this image from Aidan's Flickr site:

The photograph, I take it, is by her collaborator Paul Wagenblast, and his site has a nice page devoted to more of these poetry fashion images.

Stefene urged me, "We should invite her to do something for Les or something else in the future - she is really really good!" I agree! I most definitely will be asking Aidan and Paul if they want to play with us - perhaps, as Stefene suggested, in the Art Invitational we are pulling together to Les Murray's Sydney Highrise Variations, which we are scoring this year.

The fact of their own collaboration is a good sign, as is their basis in one of the great friendly cities of the world (Portland, Oregon), as is this welcoming note on Paul's site: "i am definitely interested in working with you".

How did you know we were going to ask?


Plucking their translations of Plath into drawing and costume out of selection of poets they are working with sent me burrowing through the internet tonight, seeing what media was out there on Sylvia; some interesting future posts will shake out of that process. For now, I'd send you over to to experience Fuzz Orchestra's Lady Lazarus , a kind of atmospheric cabaret suite inspired by the poet.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Dog song from old Mali, all on my own

Funny the things we remember about ourselves.

I remember as an undergraduare philosophy student undertaking an original reading of the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. The professor didn't think I contributed anything to the understanding of Wittgenstein, but he gave me a good grade anyway.

"I like how you were just willing to take this thing on, on your own," he said.

I think that's the way to go. I try not to be awed by difficult works or the classics, I just try to take them on, on my own.

In this spirit, I suppose, I tried to set to music a passage from Son-Jara (or Sundiata). This is exactly like trying to score part of The Iliad or The Odyssey or The Bible - taking on a classic epic, all on my own - except this is a West African epic from the ancient empire of Mali, more than 750 years old.

Actually, it takes if anything more cheek to try to score Son-Jara, because unlike the ancient Greek epics, where the bardic elements (the melodies and song structures) have disappeared, Son-Jara remains a living, breathing epic tradition. I used to run around with a young jali named Sankung Susso, and like any jali worth his salt Sankung could sit down with his kora and sing the entire damn epic.

But I wanted to take this thing on, on my own, so I just sat down with my guitar one day and scrapped together a song in my own quirky folk idiom. I tackled just one minor episode from the epic, a weird little dog story. An online study guide offers a pretty good synopsis of what goes down here:

He and Tuman each sacrifice dogs to try to win the favor of the gods. Son-Jara's dog = "Tomorrow's Affair". Dankaran Tuman's dog = "Younger Leave Me Be". These dogs exemplify their different philosophies. Son-Jara is very patient; Dankara Tuman is only concerned about the moment. Son-Jara's quality is that of a superior leader. As a result of the sacrifice, Dankaran Tuman gains the upper hand and Son-Jara is exiled. The beginning of a hero quest - he must make his name in a far away land. This expresses one of the main themes of the poem: "what sitting will not solve,travel will resolve".
I freely adapted John William Johnson's translation of a text of the poem performed by Jeli Fa-Digi Sisoko. As I type out that name, it occurs to me that Sankung and I know this jali's family. When I used to run with Sankung, he was staying at the home of Fred Onovwersuoke with a Mandinke fire eater and drummer named Sisoko.

Johnson's edition of Son-Jara is in print and well worth possessing. It is based on Sisoko's performance on March 9, 1968 in the town of Kita in modern Mali. The performance lasted four hours! My song, performed with Heidi Dean and Tim McAvin, is more like three minutes.

Free mp3

"Dog song from old Mali"
(Trad., Chris King)
Three Fried Men

Listen for the bit about pulling out the dog's teeth with pliers. I was listening to this song on Sunday morning while driving my six-year-old daughter to Sunday school. She asked what were pliers, and I described them. She immediately asked if the next time she had a tooth that was "wobbly" if I would pull it out with pliers!


Charlotte Hess' photo of people and a dog on a street in Bamako (Mali) is from the Digital Library of the Commons Image Collection.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Blogpost as sticky note so I don't forget .e again

This is basically blogpost as slightly glorified sticky note, a digital reminder to remember a musician: .e (pronounced "dottie).

I was at Eric Hall's bar a Monday night or two ago, enjoying the music. He doesn't like the way I describe his music, but I would describe this stuff as ambient music based on an electric guitar figure.

I asked what it was, and he said it was a live recording of him and a girl named .e live at The Way out the previous Friday.

I told him I really liked it. He told me how to contact .e. Which I forgot! Just now I remembered, so I am popping this up here before I forget again.

"i play music. i guess i can fall into the one person band category. i sing and play guitar. i tend to perform my songs with the assistance of sequencers and loopers. sometimes, i will play an instrumental set (the kids call it "noise"). on special rarer occasions, i will play acoustically," .e writes on her MySpace page.

"i'm throwing all of these endeavors under the '.e' moniker (?) because i dont want to come up with clever names for every single thing i do (although i have nothing necessarily against this practice) as i feel they are all different ways of saying the same thing."

She lists as influences The Minutemen and Nels Cline, which I take to be further evidence that we should work together. Richard Derrick is all over our Poetry Scores projects, and he has played with The Minutemen and Nels Cline.

So, anyway, now this note is here. In case I forget her again, maybe at least I'll remember this note and look her up!

Oh, Eric tells me he and .e are performing on Thomas Crone's show on KDHX, and sure enough I see it listed on her site for noon Friday, May 29. Think I just might have to tune in.

View of scoring a poem from Gladesville Road Bridge

I am seizing the opportunity to give Joe Freeman of The Pat Sajak Assassins a primer on scoring poems, in preparation for a collaboration, to construct something of an online tutorial in the form.

I started with a how-to post, outlining the basic principles and rules, with an example drawn from our score to Go South for Animal Index. Then I posted a posted a longer example drawn from our score to Blind Cat Black.

Now for an even longer example drawn from our score to The Sydney Highrise Variations, a work in progress we plan to release with an Art Invitational in early November.

Les Murray composed The Sydney Highrise Variations in five sections. Fairly early in the effort to score the poem, it began to look like the first section, "Fuel Stoppage on Gladesville Road Bridge in the Year 1980," was yielding some of the more memorable rock songs. So we made an effort to focus on scoring that first section as a sort of Three Fried Men e.p.

Here it is. First, the section of the poem, as organized by Les. I have made each stretch of the poem that we grouped together as a song lyric link to a recorded sketch of the song.

The poetry is followed by the six songs to the little e.p.-within-a-poetry-score, with the titles more easily recognizable links to the song sketches and the parts of the poem each song scores reproduced as the text is sung, complete with the reptitions I came up with to create hooks or flesh out song structure.


By Les Murray

1. Fuel Stoppage on Gladesville Road Bridge in the Year 1980

So we're sitting over our sick beloved engine
atop a great building of the double century
on the summit that exhilarates cars, the concrete vault on its thousands
of tonnes of height, far above the tidal turnaround

Gigantic pure form, all exterior, superbly uninhabited
or peopled only by transients at speed, the bridge
is massive outline

It was inked in by scaffolding and workers.
Seen from itself, the arch
is an abstract hill, a roadway up-and-over without country,
from below, a ponderous grotto, all entrance and vast shade
framing blues and levels
From a distance, the flyover on its vaulting drum
is a sketched stupendous ground-burst, a bubble raising surface
or a rising heatless sun with inset horizons

Also, it's a space-probe,
a trajectory of strange fixed dusts, that were milled,
boxed with steel rod mesh and fired, in stages,
from sandstone point to point
. They docked at apogee.
It feels good. It feels right.
The joy of sitting high is in our judgement.
The marvellous brute-force effects of our century work.
They answer something in us. Anything in us



Fuel Stoppage on Gladesville Road Bridge in the Year 1980

1. “Far above the tidal turnaround”
(Chris King, Lij, Les Murray)
Three Fried Men

So we're sitting
Over our sick beloved engine
Atop a great building of the double century
On the summit that exhilarates cars
The concrete vault on its thousands
Of tonnes of height
Far above the tidal turnaround

So we're sitting over our sick beloved engine
Atop a great building of the double century
Far above the tidal turnaround
Far above the tidal turnaround
Far above the tidal turnaround

2. “Transients at speed”
(Chris King, Lij, Les Murray)
Three Fried Men

Pure form
All exterior
Superbly uninhabited
And peopled only by
Transients at speed
Transients at speed
Transients at speed,
Transients at speed

Gigantic pure form
All exterior
Superbly uninhabited
And peopled only by
Transients at speed
Transients at speed
Transients at speed
Transients at speed

The bridge is massive outline

[I see I sang the word "and" where Les write "or". Should be able to overdub and fix that.]

3. “Inked in by scaffolding and workers”
(Matt Fuller, Chris King, Les Murray)
Three Fried Men

It was inked in by scaffolding and workers
It was inked in by scaffolding and workers
It was inked in by scaffolding and workers
It was inked in by scaffolding and workers

Seen from itself, the arch is an abstract hill
A roadway up-and-over without country
Inked in by scaffolding and workers.
It was inked in by scaffolding and workers
It was inked in by scaffolding and workers
It was inked in by scaffolding and workers

From below, a ponderous grotto
All entrance and vast shade
Framing blues and levels
Framing blues and levels
Framing blues and levels
Framing blues and levels
Framing blues and levels
Framing blues and levels

4. “On its vaulting drum”
(Matt Fuller, Chris King, Les Murray)
Three Fried Men

From a distance, the flyover
On its vaulting drum
On its vaulting drum

Sketched stupendous ground-burst
A bubble raising surface
Or a rising heatless sun
A rising heatless sun
Or a rising heatless sun
A rising heatless sun
With inset horizons

A rising heatless sun
Or a rising heatless sun
With inset horizons

[I see I dropped the words "is a" before the phrase "sketched stupendous ground-burst"; also fixable.]

5. "Also, it's a space probe"
(Matt Fuller, Chris King, Les Murray)
Three Fried Men

Also, it's a space-probe
A trajectory
Of strange fixed dusts
That were milled
Boxed with steel
Rod mesh and fired
In stages
From sandstone
Point to point

Also, it's a space-probe
A trajectory
Of strange fixed dusts
A trajectory
Of strange fixed dusts
It's a space-probe

6. "They docked at apogee”
(Matt Fuller, Chris King, Les Murray)
Three Fried Men

They docked at apogee
They docked at apogee
It feels good
It feels right
The joy of sitting high
Is in our judgement
It feels good
It feels right

They docked at apogee
They docked at apogee
The marvellous brute-force
Effects of our century work
They answer something in us
Anything in us


The painting "From Gladesville Bridge" is by Michael Zaiter.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Three songs to one prose poem about a "Secret Jew"

Yesterday I posted up a little how-to note on constructing a poetry score, with one example drawn from our score to Go South for Animal Index by Stefene Russell. Here is another example, drawn from our score to Blind Cat Black.

Blind Cat Black - written in Turkish by Ece Ayhan and translated into English by Murat Nemet-Nejat - is a sequence of prose poems. I want to look at the multiple uses we made of the language in one of the prose poems in the sequence, "The Secret Jew".

Here is the text, in Murat's marvelous translation:
"The Secret Jew"

Lidless, one of the devils, he is pulling out with my streetcar money. From time to time, going downtown like this, I feel sad and shaky. In the hotel I sleep in his (my Corpse's) bed. When his hair keeps growing jet black like that what is it that my live body begrudges and I try to give to him. With my large beefy hands. A sharp spur. Odor of sulphur. A scarred copper-branded ass. In the sewers of my veins, there, a rat. It nibbles at the town and the hanging tree in me. Crazies, rats, male rats, share (you must share, children) a charred corpse. In the cellar. There were no little words of loving him, these keys on his belt (warden, lover!) couldn't be little cooing words of loving him. I ran away, scared, not to meet the porcelain doll. To meet him. That would be my going back to the Lexicon of Torture. The widow plant of the idiot forests eating up joy, the poppy hatred of seven years, the silk hand with cowhide gloves doling out inheritance. He doesn't want to be buried, he says. He is cold. On the back platform of the streetcar the young devil on fire disappearing. I am picking out my spectacles from the swamps of my envy. After the arsonist’s fire the brother of my Ex-Mistress (my Corpse) who disappeared. He can be recognized by the delicate insect-eyed family mask covering his coarse face. That guy. Why should I sob anyway. He loves easily, passes his hand below the belt of my vault, forgets easily what a secret Jew I am.
- By Ece Ayhan
- Translated by Murat Nemet-Nejat
We scored what I thought was the entire piece as spoken word over musical bed, and titled that piece after the poem itself, "The secret Jew”. The reader here is Pops Farrar, delivering the lines live as a trio of musicians at an abandoned hippe commune in Middle Tennessee improvised over a musical theme familiar to them.

If you listen to the song with the poem in front of you, however, you will see that Pops misses the last four sentences of the poem.

It was an honest mistake. There is a page break precisely at the end of a sentence near the end - "After the arsonist’s fire the brother of my Ex-Mistress (my Corpse) who disappeared." - that ends in the phrase "who disappeared," which sure sounds like an ending to me. It apparently sounded like an ending to Pops - and to the musicians, whose improvisation trails away on this phrase. It disappears.

It's all so definitive sounding, in fact, that for years I unwittingly left the last four lines of the piece untouched, unscored. It was only in the final mastering phase with Adam Long that I decided to do what rock & rollers call an "idiot check" and compare the entire score to the text of the poem. And that is when I realized we had done nothing at all musically with these lines:
He can be recognized by the delicate insect-eyed family mask covering his coarse face. That guy. Why should I sob anyway. He loves easily, passes his hand below the belt of my vault, forgets easily what a secret Jew I am.
That is a cardinal violation of rule one of a poetry score! Above all, you are supposed to score all of the language in the poem and only the language in the poem, in the order it is written!

Pops had died by then, so there was no rounding him up to read these abandoned lines, and I had long since lost touch with the musicians at the abandoned hippie commune in Middle Tennessee. So a completely different solution was needed.

I tend to carry around a portabe archive of musical fragments recorded for (or donated to) Poetry Scores, and I turned to these while Adam moved onto other mastering needs. Rummaging through my six-pack box of CDrs, I came upon some National steel guitar fragments Tom Hall had recorded for us. We had intended to use this stuff on the score to Leo Connellan's Crossing America, but never found a home for it there. One very tiny piece, I thought, would work for these four lines.

Who would read it? Years before, I had recorded the translator, who lives in Hoboken, Ne Jersey, reading the entire poetic sequence. We had made strategic use of a few of his readings, but his phrasing and tonality didn't work for these lines against Tom Hall's guitar part.

I could hear our friend the poet Stefene Russell's voice reading these wonderfully strange lines. I got her on the phone, she agreed, and we recorded her over the phone. The warbly, crackly character of her voice coming out of my cellphone added a desirable element of distance and fragmentation. Our rules required titling the piece after a verbatim piece of language, and I immediately liked “That guy” for the title.

Pops' performance of "The Secret Jew" at Flatrock was actually the first piece of this score we recorded, so I didn't need to do anything else with any of those lines he had read - they were covered. But our rules for scoring poems do allow for reuse of choice lines, typically as a hook within a song. But, in this case, I wanted to go back and get some of the lines Pop had read that I thought would be fun to sing, and write a song.

In the sewers of my veins,
There, a rat.
It nibbles at the town
And the hanging tree in me.
Crazies, rats, male rats,
Share (you must share, children)
A charred corpse. In the cellar.
If you listen to the song I wrote based on these lines, “In the sewers of my veins”, you will hear that within the song we also re-reused some of the choice lines to create a hook and an outro. By the way, that is the one and only Fred Friction you hear singing along with me; for who else to sing about sewers of veins or charred corpses in cellars?

We stopped there - three songs, from one proise poem - but now I wonder why. Check out this language covered in Pops' reading. How could I have resisted setting this to music as sung text?

The Lexicon of Torture.
The widow plant of the idiot
Forests eating up joy
The poppy hatred of seven years
The silk hand with cowhide gloves
Doling out inheritance.

How great would that work for a power pop punk rock lyric? Man, I love this Poetry Scores thing! The possibilities are just endless!

Free mp3s

"The secret Jew
(Ece Ayhan, Flatrock, Murat Nemet-Nejat)
Pops Farrar, Flatrock

That guy
(Ece Ayhan, Tom Hall, Murat Nemet-Nejat)
Tom Hall, Stefene Russell

In the sewers of my veins
(Ece Ayhan, Chris King, Murat Nemet-Nejat)
Fred Friction, Three Fried Men


The image is a detail from Chris Dingwell's painting The Secret Jew, which he made in reponse to this poem for 2006 Poetry Scores Art Invitational devoted to Blind Cat Black.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Scoring a poem is not brain surgery - it's oral surgery

So Joe Freeman and I now have the inklings of a plan to score us some Bradley Bowers. Joe suggested a standing date on Monday nights to work on this thing, whatever it turns out to be, and I like that idea, even if this Monday night I'll be only two days into healing up after my latest round of oral surgery.

In the event that I might not feel like talking too much this Monday night, I thought I would set forth in writing the basic principles of a poetry score, as I have come to practice the form over the last fifteen years with a large, shifting group of collaborators.

The idea is to take a long poem and score it as one would score a film - to use music to illustrate the poem and bring it to life.

This is not as simple as coming up with "background music" or a "voice bed," though that is one approach among many we have used. For stretches of all three of the poetry scores we have finished thus far (and for the one we are working on now), we have scored passages of the poem as spoken word over music.

But that's just one strategy, typically used when a piece of the language seems really difficult to sing (or particularly irrestible to speak or here spoken). In most cases, I much prefer to sing the poetry - to treat the poem as the lyric sheet for an album and start carving the long poem into constituent songs.

When doing so, I don't worry too much about how the poet puncuated his poem. For example, just because the poet sets fours lines apart as a stanza doesn't mean I need to score those four lines as the verse of a song.

The four lines of the stanza might be divided into two songs, or four songs, or some of the lines (or parts of lines) might be spoken and others might be sung. Or (to add another poetry score technique), a phrase within those four lines might be used only to title an instrumental interlude.

I personally prefer popular forms of song - mostly what people describe as rock or folk - that rely heavily on the refrain (or chorus or hook). In our sense of what is proper in a poetry score, it is perfectly acceptable to recycle one or more phrases from the poem as a chorus or a hook, though we have simple rules for doing so that must be obeyed.

The rules for hooks:

Every word in the poem needs to be scored in the order it appears in the poem without interpolating any outside language. Once you have scored a word or phrase in the poem (in any way - spoken, sung, or as a title of an instrumental), then you can go back and reuse that word or phrase, if needed, as a hook in a song. But, once you have sung the hook, you need to go back to where you left off, at the next line or phrase of the poem that has not yet been scored, and score that next.

I will use as an example what Matt Fuller and I did with the first two stanzas of Stefene Russell's long poem Go South for Animal Index, in our score of the poem. Here is the beginning of the poem as she wrote it:
For the world is from the beasts, and it is a beast.
Therefore he that is lost has been reckoned to the crafty one,
and that one is from the beasts that came forth.
No beast exists in the eternal realm.

And desire is in the midst of the beautiful, appetizing trees.
We used the first three lines (but not the fourth line of that stanza) as lyrics to a song, "From the beasts". Note that the title of the song is a verbatim quote from the poem, which is in keeping with the rule that you can't interpolate any outside language into the score.

When you listen to the Three Fried Men song "From the beasts," you will see that we reused some lines for hooks, and repeated one phrase to fit the rhythm of the vocal line. Here is how this part of the score would look on a lyric sheet:

For the world is from the beasts, and it is a beast
The world is from the beasts, and it is a beast
Therefore he that is lost should be reckoned to the crafty one.

And that one is from the beasts, the beasts that came forth.
And that one is from the beasts, the beasts that came forth.
Therefore he that is lost should be reckoned to the crafty one.
If you compare the lyric sheet version to the poem as written, you will see that two complete lines and another phrase within one of the lines get repeated, but after each repetition (to fit the melody and the structural logic of the song), we return to the poem where we left off.

(One discrepancy in the second line of her poem, where Stefene writes "has been" and we sing "should be," is an artifact of a rewrite. Stefene kept revising the poem after we scored it, and I never went back and painstakingly matched her every finessed phrase. Oh, well.)

As for the last line of that first stanza, "No beast exists in the eternal realm," we scored that as spoken word, using the poet's own reading, which Adam Long and I dropped over a fragment of music from the band Middle Sleep that was active in the early 1980s. The resulting piece is called "No beast exists", and it uses the one line of text once only, precisely as written.

For the next line of the poem - the one-line second stanza - we go back to sung text. This is a good example, because it includes a very small cheat. This is about as much as I have ever broken the rules we set for ourselves in scoring a poem, and as much as I would want to see the rules broken in a score that had our name on it.

Here is the line:

And desire is in the midst of the beautiful, appetizing trees.

When you listen to the song from the score, "And desire", and compare the sung text to the words of the poem, you shoud hear a very tiny break in the unfolding of the poem word by word, line by line, in the order written. Here is the lyric sheet version:

And desire is in the midst of the beautiful trees.
And desire is in the midst of the appetizing trees.
Where is the cheat?

The poet wrote the phrase "the beautiful, appetizing trees," but when I sing it the first time through, I sing "the beautiful trees". I skipped the word "appetizing"! I go back and get it, immediately, in the next line of the song, since I am building a little refrain out of this line, but technically I broken a rule by not scoring the three words in the phrase "beautiful appetizing trees" exactly in the order written.

I forgive myself. Ourselves. But I wouldn't have stood for this if we had not immediately gone back and picked up "appetizing" in the next line of sung text.

(By the way, extra credit if you realize that this would not be a cheat at all if the word "trees" had appeared previously in the poem and we had already scored it, because then it would be permissible to repeat it in the spirit of a hook, as long as the next time we scored a word we had not yet scored, it was the next word in the poem: "appetizing".)

I know, I know, that was probaby more painful than oral surgery for most of you!

Free mp3s

"From the beasts"
(Matt Fuller, Chris King, Stefene Russell)
Three Fried Men

"No beast exists"
(Middle Sleep, Stefene Russell)
Middle Sleep, Stefene Russell

"And desire"
(Matt Fuller, Chris King, Stefene Russell)
Three Fried Men


Image is from University of Nebraska Medical Center do-gooders restoring lost teeth for Sudanese refugees.