Saturday, December 19, 2009

Letter from Les Murray on our Sydney Highrise score

Let's face it, it's not the response one might have hoped for, but Les Murray has responded with a letter from Australia in response to our score of his long poem The Sydney Highrise Variations:

Dear Chris, my Egyptian son,
Thanks indeed for Sydney Highrise. Interesting! The music does fight the words more than somewhat, at times. But it's all up in the air now, even more than when we recorded the thing; I mean the future of poetry, performance, publication.
He goes on to ask after my daughter - my wife was very pregnant with Leyla when Les visited our house in New York - to extend holiday wishes, and to explain in brief the poem on the other side of his handwritten note, which ventures to answer the question posed by the opening line: "Why write poetry?"

He signs, "Les, of the Bowels" - a reference, I take it, to the drawing of mine on which I had inscribed my letter to him that accompanied the score. I had drawn a cartoon of Oliver Cromwell speaking a line that, in The Sydney Highrise Variations, Les said Cromwell never thundered: "After all, in the bowels of Christ, this is the seventeenth century!"

As for his salutation ("my Egyptian son"), I sign my drawings, as I had explained in my letter, with the Egyptian hieroglyph for son, which my Aunt Dorothy once described as "a duck getting hit in the butt with a stick".

Why score poetry? Not to please the poet, thank God. Poets know their own poems so intimately and have such a deep set of private and aesthetic associations with them that it's hardly fair to expect that a musical setting of a poem will please the poet.

Still, of course, one might have hoped for something better than "the music does fight the words more than somewhat, at times". But Les is an honest man, and given his eloquence and capacity for detailed description, I should be thankful that he kept his criticism as brief as he did!

After reading his letter, as soon as I could I gave our score a fresh spin, listening throughout for a fight between the music and the words, and I still don't hear it. I am still very satisified with our work.

I am also happy that Les was alive to hear the finished piece, whether or not it pleased him. When we started scoring poems, we took our good, sweet time, separated as we are in four separate cities, with no organizational structure or budget. It took a long time.

It so happens that the first two poets we scored, Leo Connellan and Ece Ayhan, died while we were working on the scores. I will admit, at some point we began to feel like harbingers of a curse. I can't tell you how much of a relief it was when the third poet we scored, our friend and colleague Stefene Russell, was still drawing a breath when we finished Go South for Animal Index.

Les was next, so we are now 2-2 in poets surviving being scored by us, and 1-1 in our approval ratings from the poets who actually lived to hear the score. (Stefene loved the Go South score and reportedly wept to hear it.)

The translator of Blind Cat Black, Murat Nemet-Nejat, lived to hear our score of the poem and was enthusiastic about it. Since we scored Murat's English translation of Blind Cat Black rather than Ece Ayhan's Turkish original, I am going to go ahead and bump our poet approvals rating up to 2-1, our poet survival numbers to 3-2, and decide to feel good about where we are.

Though I do agree with Les - it is all "up in the air", the future of poetry. That is one of the reasons we translate it into other media - to help it survive.


Sydney postmark from the New South Wales archives.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Drinking with Jack Ruby's Girls and Michael Cooney

I wrote this I don't know how many years ago, but it is all true, still. And looooog ...

I thought of Pops Farrar, unavoidably, while driving into downtown Belleville, a place given a convincing lick and promise since I had seen it last. The pub where the lads were playing was just around a handsome roundabout that circles a grand, phosphorescent fountain.

As I entered the pub, the only vacant table was stage-right, just off Pat Egan's strumming elbow. Or, rather, it was the only vacant chair. Opposite me at the table was an older man, who looked lost in his cups, though he wasn't drinking.

The remarkable thing about him, in addition to his odd half-slumber, was an item of clothing – the garish, orange, reflective vest of a roadman on the night shift. (I guessed that he walked home late from bars and wanted to be seen by the drunks operating motor vehicles.) Every so often, he would seem to wake and would shake his fists furiously in rhythm to the music.

I had been telling people for days, and I firmly believed, that there would be no better music performed on Earth that night. Michael Cooney, the keeper of the Irish pipes; Tom Hall, a redheaded piece of the St. Louis blues; and the mournful Irish songster himself, Pat Egan.

As the bartender, Bobby, a veteran of the late-'80s McGurk's glory days, said at the end of the night, "It's like having Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis together."

I was happy to be alone, or alone with your man in the glowing vest, because that left me free to read in the bright pub as the music swirled madly.

I had in my clutches Jack Ruby's Girls, an intimate portrait of the man who killed Lee Harvey Oswald, written by two women who had worked in Ruby's Carousel Club, Diane Hunter and Alice Anderson. The book was a key source for the poet David Clewell in his composition of Jack Ruby's America, which we are scoring.

Jack Ruby's Girls was published by a no-name press in 1970 and is long out-of-print. My reading copy came courtesy of Esme Green, chief librarian for The Skuntry Museum, Library & Beer Cellar, rising bibliographic professional in the Greater Boston metropolitan area, and distant descendent of the Donner Party named for a character out of Salinger (her brother, necessarily, is named Holden).

As I adored my pint of Guinness, perfectly formed, with a foamy, golden brown head and oil-black body, I thought of Esme's husband, Chris Perry, a man born for a perfectly poured Guinness and Belleville's fiercest known admirer.

Perro (as we call him) loved Pops Farrar as much as any of us, having camped out at the old man's spread on the edge of town during a memorable visit to the Lou. Oddly enough, his favorite baseball player, the journeyman Brian Daubach (who was a fan favorite at Fenway over a few productive seasons), is also proudly a Belleville native.

So, as I sipped my pint, I was alone and not alone. I was there with the cry of the pipes, the ghost of Pops nodding calmly under a fishing hat, and Perro and Esme laughing at the thrilling changes in the reels. And Jack Ruby's girls were whispering in my ear.

Their book is a dead-on portrait written in the dead-eye prose of a 1960s Dallas striptease joint. I was reading it to see what I could learn about Ruby's "orchestra," as he called the Carousel Club's combo of "usually four or five pieces," which we hope to recreate for our poetry score to Jack Ruby's America.

The authors identify no players by name, but I did learn that Ruby once lost his left index fingertip to the teeth of a musician from his orchestra, which soured him on the musical tribe. Musicians got the least of his respect after that. The only player even identified by instrument in the book is a drummer, who was ordered to help Ruby drag from the club a loudmouth he had knocked cold.

Apparently, Ruby was a poor judge of talent, especially of dancers, his club's bread and butter, though his inabilities in this regard were captured with a musical metaphor. "Theatrical agents told one another that Jack Ruby couldn't distinguish a flute from a curtain rod," his girls wrote. So, a certain ragtag character to our reconstructed Poetry Scores orchestra might be considered authentic.

Two clues to repertoire and arrangement emerged. Andy Armstrong, the Carousel Club's bartender and de facto manager (a black man, by the way), used to whistle the "Dixie" theme to alert a favorite waitress to the presence at the bar of a sucker with a fat bankroll. Evidently, our poetry score must include "Dixie," whistled by Joe Jonas, the elder statesman of the Dallas blues who contacted us about Rosco Gordon – and who, it turns out, gigged at the Carousel Club as a youth.

The authors also tell the strange story of a dancer who was able to move her breasts independently of one another and with the assistance of no other body part. She was quite a smash at the club.

Eventually, Ruby (remember his tin ear for talent) had her attach a bell to each of her breasts and try to play "The Eyes of Texas" with them. While replicating the exact logistics seems uncalled for, "The Eyes of Texas" arranged for two bells seems fated for some seamy moment in the poetry score.

I soaked in these ideas, along with hours of soaring pipe melodies and a string of pints funded mostly by the musicians themselves, who treated me like visiting royalty. Between sets, they also inspired me to imagine lines for Two Birds in a Field, the play about the plight of the modern itinerant folk musician that Cooney has commissioned me to write.

Michael Cooney (in Act I, after a long stretch of mutual kvetching about how hard gigging musicians have it): So, why do we do it, Tom?

Tom Hall: “I don't know. Do you want to go back to bartending?”

Cooney: “Why, no. It's the wrong side of the bar.”

Hall: “All I have to do is picture myself back at The Orphanage. Where I tended bar. Not my first.”

Cooney: “Bartending job?”

Hall: “No, orphanage.”

Cooney: “You don't mean it ...”

After the last set, Tom Hall pulled me aside. "If you really want to do this play thing," he said, "you have to interview us both about how we met and everything."

"So," I said, "how did you meet and everything?"

"I don't remember," Tom said. "All I know is I always hated Irish music. I hated it. I couldn't tell where one tune started and another one ended. And it didn't have a backbeat. It was just, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2. It was ... so white. Then I was stoned one time with Alice (Spencer), when the (Geyer Street) Sheikhs were still together. And I heard Cooney play a slow air. And I saw it just coming out of his pores, the music. And then I got it. The Irish are the black people of Western Europe."

As we joined Cooney at the bar for last call – "last call" being an extended and fuzzy phenomenon after a session in an Irish pub – a third role wrote itself into the play.

A very drunken young woman from the pub's staff greeted Michael, saying, "Are you Michael Cooney? The Michael Cooney? The person I have been answering the phone for all week? 'When is Michael Cooney playing?' 'When is Michael Cooney playing?' 'When is Michael Cooney playing?'"

I had worked the room a bit that night, trying to sell CDs for the lads, and I had seen her, off-duty and partying hard, seated far from the music, which her table seemed to be ignoring. It was name magic, not music, that brought her to the piper.

Cooney guiltily let himself be paraded to her table and fussed over and made to sign autographs for an entire table of drunken young women. A couple of pints deeper into the last call, the girl who had been answering the phone all week took to calling the great piper "The Coonster."

You devote your life to a few hundred melodies that somehow stayed alive God knows how many centuries in the Sliveardagh Hills of County Tipperary, and you end up "The Coonster" to drunken American youth simply because the pub phone rang off the hook for you.

So Cooney and Hall will be joined in Act I ("A Nervous Waltz") by a young stewardess, and in Act II ("I Buried My Wife and Danced on Her Grave") by a young barmaid, played by the same actor. Her youth, energy and innocence could provide a comic foil to the bitter wisdom and exhaustion of the musicians. I am thinking to imagine her as a hip-hop head, for whom Tom Hall's blues are just as "white" and foreign as Irish music.

When "The Coonster" had escaped back to the safety of the men at the bar, he floored me.

"Chris," he said, "about Sunday night."
We had planned a solo recording session with Roy Kasten for that time.

"I heard every word you said about what you want to do. And I agreed with every word of it. And I have too much respect for what you are trying to do to give you anything but my best. And, geez, Chris, I don't play on Sunday nights. I work all weekend, and then I don't play on Sunday nights. I'd much rather come over to your museum, have a bit of that African moonshine, and talk creatively. I don't want to rush it. I want to come back to town later just for this purpose. I want it to be after a tour, when I'm really ready, I want to have fresh reeds in my pipes, and I want to have it all worked out with you beforehand."

I could see that he was gravely concerned that he was letting me down, but just the opposite was true. I rejoiced at the seriousness with which he was taking one of my longest-standing musical fantasies (along with writing and recording a pop record for Elton John): recording a Michael Cooney solo record. Just the pipes, with the drones represented as forcefully as the reeds, so that the drama between the drone changes and the melodies – which Michael has mastered, and his mastery of that drama is what makes listening to him play such a seasick experience – can stand forth in their full complexity.

And to hear Michael Cooney talking with such gravity about visiting The Skuntry Museum!

I tried to share with him my happiness, fumbling all over myself.

"Thanks, Chris," Michael said, in turn. "You see, I've got to be careful with the music. I don't only represent myself. I represent a lot of other people as well."

That would be the best mission statement of the traditional musician I have ever heard.

A bit tipsy now, from Guinness and the respect of Michael Cooney, I decided to hit Tom up again on the way out the door for another long-deferred dream of Roy's and mine: a Tom Hall solo record. I told him what great sounds Roy has been getting with other artists, like Palookaville.

"Let me finish my blues record first," he said, as he has been saying for five years. "But I want to do it. I keep thinking about it. All originals."

"All originals!" I said. "What's the title?"

"The Life and Times of Huckleberry Jesus," Tom Hall said, as he began to gather up all his gear at the end of another gig.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Cesar Vallejo plays the piano keys of my soul

My vocation these days is to set long poems to music. The organization I cofounded to accomplish this work, Poetry Scores, has projects planned and in the works for years to come. We have many needs, but a new long poem to score is not among them.

Yet and still, I am always reading poetry, and when the poem is a long poem, I listen in my inner ear for the sound of music, always prepared to conceive of a new poetry score.

This past weekend, I heard that music. It hit me as hard as music has ever hit me when I was reading a poem. The long poem that sang to me is called "Trilce" by the Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo, in Clayton Eshleman's most recent translation.

I was reading at a brewpub on a wintry Saturday afternoon, which may be my favorite thing on Earth to do. My family was in Jefferson City for the weekend, the Missouri state capital, which is a bit depopulated on weekends - especially when the Legislature is not in session. That's when we find this central Missouri city a comfortable place to disappear.

In the hotel bed, I had been tangling with Vallejo's first book of poems, "The Black Heralds," without really getting anywhere. I took the end of that book, in The Complete Poetry, as a good spot to stop, shower, then pack off to lunch at Prison Brews, the new brewpub down the road.

And it was there, slumped over the bar with a Double Deuce Ale, that Cesar Vallejo began singing to me, as soon as I cracked the spine on his second book (and the last published in his lifetime), "Trilce".

I say Vallejo sang to me, but not really. It was actually the same multifaceted orchestra that always sings to me, the same odds and ends that always work their ways into our scores, the trusty piano keys of my soul: I heard Heidi Dean singing rapturously, a sad wash of slightly amateurish brass, our scrappy indie rock songs, Richard Selman thumbing mbira, Amy Camie thrumming out lush harp lines, Adam Long sawing cello, and a Babel of varying human voices.

Since we won't get to this score until 2013, at the earliest, after Jack Ruby's America by David Clewell, Incantata by Paul Muldoon and Give by Alice Fulton, I look forward to spending the next few years trying to reassemble this orchestra outside of my head.

"Trilce" is a sequence of 77 poems, and we can fit just about 77 minutes on one CD, so the challenge suggests itself: to construct 77 musical miniatures of one minute each.

Back to The Minutemen! As always.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Poetry Scores talks business with Lola van Ella

I had lunch today with the one and only Lola van Ella. The hardest working girl in St. Louis burlesque is collaborating with Poetry Scores to add a showgirl dimension to our 2010 score, Jack Ruby's America.

The subject of David Clewell's poem, Jack Ruby, owned a Dallas nightclub at the time he shot Lee Harvey Oswald dead in 1963. His nightclub, The Carousel, featured showgirls - it was a burlesque club; in the language of Clewell's poem, a "burleyque".

Since Clewell is local and St. Louis has a thriving burlesque scene with an intelligent and collaborative character like Lola in it, I hit upon the idea of performing our score live with the poet, a jazz trio, and Lola's burlesque act.

I sent Lola a link to videos of burlesque at The Carousel back in the early 1960s, and that caught her attention. Over lunch today at Mangia, we more or less sealed the deal, with only dates and details to be finalized.

The idea is for Lola to work out a routine to the musical interlude that will follow the movement of Clewell's poem that relates most directly to the showgirls at the burleyque, "Jack Ruby talks business with the new girl: November 21, 1963". Today Lola was telling me that burlesque in Dallas back in the day was "very bump and grind," so we can expect from Lola something very bump and grind, which is sure to disappoint no one.

On the CD to the score, we will follow Clewell's reading of "Jack Ruby talks business with the new girl" with a fragment from a tune by The Kennebunkport Jazz Workshop, which will be titled, on the score, "You twisting in the wind" (a verbatim quote from the part of the poem that precedes it; this is a formal rule for titles of instrumentals on poetry scores).

When we perform the score live, Lola will materialize on stage as Clewell sounds the title of his reading, "Jack Ruby talks business with the new girl". She will interact with the poetry, not the poet, while Clewell is reading. Then, the band - The Dave Stone Trio - will hit; and Lola van Ella will bump and grind.


"Jack Ruby talks business with the new girl: November 21, 1963"
David Clewell
(Recorded by Roy Kasten)

"You twisting in the wind"
The Kennebunkport Jazz Workshop
(Recorded by Lij)


Photo of Lola van Ella from her Facebook page, by Michelle.