Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A Conversation: Michael Zapruder and Sheila Davies Sumner

Michael Zapruder and Sheila Davies Sumner discuss 
the musical illustration of poems

I think that without the chorus-like parts of the record, the sense that this is an effort to pull songs into the world of poetry would have failed, and it would have seemed much more like a collection of experimental poetry, as opposed to a record of experimental, yet very songlike, songs.

 - Michael Zapruder

Sheila Davies Sumner: You began by listening to poets read, collaborating with your “inner ear’s inner ear” to hear the songs within poems. Six years later, you’ve recorded twenty-two songs on a CD that accompanies your project, Pink Thunder, which turns these poems into song. You write, “my inviolable rule was that the poems must control the music and not vice versa”. This sounds very hard to do, to sing these poems as closely as possible to a typical reading –– almost like translating. How did you keep from you from going astray? What signs were there that held you to this disciplined, controlled path? 

Michael Zapruder: There really weren't any signs that held me to a path. I think the songs would have turned out pretty badly if I had held any certain expectations or even if I had been looking beyond myself and my intuition that the poems were a) not being destroyed by the music and b) that the music was still songlike.

The poems probably don't control the music as much as they guide it. I have a hunch that neither poetry nor music is likely to work well if the process is overly controlled by some outside force. 

SDS: Your voice can sound a whole bunch of ways –– tuneful and tuneless, hard and surrendering, with sweet notes and tender breaks in tone (see some examples below). I’m curious about the decisions you have to make about a poem to establish the voice or voices of a song –– the who who sings.

Lonely:                         None of this matters to you anymore  (James Tate, “From an Island”)

Earnest:                       These boobs are real  (Dorothea Lasky, “Boobs Are Real”)

Yearning:                      Songs of the past noelle  (Matthew Zapruder, "Opera")

Gentle:                         She has a dream and she has the same dream (Bob Hicok, “Twins”)

Soft introspection:        Unsoothes you where you slip (Hoa Nguyen, “Calmly Grass
                                     Becomes a Wave”)

Clarity:                          I was the smallest thing in the world / fragment of spit, rumor of mud 
                                     (Dara Wier, “For a Chinese Poet Writing Through the Night Up on
                                      Mt. Pollux”) 

MZ: This is a great question. Recording these vocals was, as I think I mention in the Introduction to the book, very confusing, since the poems seem to speak from such an ambiguous place. There isn't always the strong sense of self or clear emotional tone as you find it in songs. Maybe it's something to do with the fact that you can't really sing to yourself (in your head, at least), whereas if you're reading poetry, the kind of language in these poems is not that different from what you might think to yourself at any given time.

It might also have to do with the idea that these poems are usually read aloud in a certain environment—one that is almost like a ritual space. Music can create that kind of space, but then words seem to dilute that effect by engaging the thinking mind.

In any case, these words, combined with music and the fact that I had to sing them, didn't always seem like they needed to be sung. And of course they didn't, since they were already fully functional poems. 

SDS: Some poems are litany-like or have the equivalent of refrains. I’m curious how you develop or compose through these. For instance, in Dorothea Lasky’s poem: “They stole, They knocked, They killed, They cut, They pierced, They ran, They played, They loved, They gave.” Did these repetitions facilitate or obstruct the songwriting? Did you resist or welcome them? 

MZ: I don't think I resisted anything, partly because I only worked on poems that, from the start, seemed to be likely to lead to songs fairly easily. Things like the repetitions in Dottie's poem actually provide a more familiar foundation for being songlike, since song has such a copacetic relationship with repetition. It's easier to sing lines like the ones you mention above than it is to sing line after line with no obvious common characteristics. Eventually, dissimilarities that come one after another in a song will break the listener's trust that this is in fact a song. The piece might be amazing, but it becomes something else. 

SDS:  In your Artists’s Statement you make the observation, “Ultimately I came to think that the music of a poem is like a mobile,” which confirmed as well as influenced my listening experience. Your music does take on different shapes, which is part of its pleasure. These songs feel constructed to showcase equilibrium: rods as music, weighted objects as words –– in sculpted motion, in stillness, in balance.

Many songs make use of the chorus in this compensatory way. For instance, the swelling chorus sound in “Florida” by Travis Nichols; the choral distance in “Last Words” by Sierra Nelson, or the remote hari-krishnas in “Book of Life” by Noelle Kocot; and those lovely, soothing harmonies in “Chia Pet Cemetery” by D.A. Powell, in “Civics” by David Berman, and in “Word” by Joe Wenderoth. Would you talk about the role of chorus in your translations of a poem into a song? 

MZ: Great question. One of the real dangers of these songs is that they just end up seeming like a bunch of random ideas strung together. I was always on the lookout for any opportunity to drop into a chorus or a repetitive cycle, to balance out the free-verse sections. I also wanted to believe that the poems do have refrains in them, even if they are extremely subtle.

I think that without the chorus-like parts of the record, the sense that this is an effort to pull songs into the world of poetry would have failed, and it would have seemed much more like a collection of experimental poetry, as opposed to a record of experimental, yet very songlike, songs. 

SDS: You sing the poems “with music happening.” Which turns out to be a rich selection and inventive use of strings, horns, percussion, synthesizers –– aural spices. And the musical structure is complex. One example is “My Grandmother” by Valzhyna Mort (translated by Mort & Franz Wright). More than halfway through the poem, at the line, Her arms like stork legs, the song seems to unfold into an altogether new genre –– a torch song, to my ear. Is this what you mean by “deep verses”? 

MZ: Actually, no. To me, that's one of the best examples of a chorus that seemed to emerge from the poem. After a number of through-composed, non-repeating lines, suddenly the song finds itself in a big refrain. Bob Hicok's "Twins" is a better example, where, after a refrain-like section in the middle, the music has to support quite a bit more text, and it does so with new musical ideas.

Any new idea, or a variation of an idea, that appears for the first time late in a song can weaken the sense that a piece of music is in fact a song. I don't know if this is some fundamental law of song or if it's a convention, but most of us expect songs to introduce most of their ideas by somewhere close to the midpoint. There are exceptions, but I think they prove the rule. 

SDS: “Birdman” by Gillian Conoley, is spare and off-key, with percussively-appointed sounds. And “Storm Window”, by Mary Ruefle, is so nursery-school bright, with its emphatic, happy rhythms. I love this particular segue or pairing of songs –– we slide off Now I am a yellow hammer and jump into She sat writing little poems of mist. What in these poems inspired such disparate types of music? 

MZ: Well thank you! It's funny, Birdman was one of the first of these songs that I wrote, and Storm Window was one of the last. And it wasn't the poems that inspired the different types of music, so much as the music that inspired the different kinds of poems. Basically, when I did Storm Window, I picked it in part because I needed something faster and brighter to balance the overall group of songs. That's such a vivid poem, it's so easy to see the whole situation, that I think it would be possible to write a very good slow song based on it, as well. 

SDS: New meters and line breaks are created in the way particular words and phrases are vocally or musically stressed. Words like Heavyassedness (Carrie St. George Comer), Occupant glow (Joshua Beckman), and Opera (Mathew Zapruder). And phrases like Along the way to civilization (Tyehimba Jess) with its crescendo, or She wore it to the opera (St. George Comer again, from At Play in My Garden on a Sunday Morning”) with its high frequency EQ. This placement of the emotional charge seems to give some songs a playful feel of improvisation, even after many listenings. 

MZ: I'm very glad to hear that! 

SDS: The book, Pink Thunder, has drawings by Arrington de Dionyso that support the text in an engaging, honest way. The poems are hand-lettered, instead of being typed, changing in thickness and color and size. Overall, there’s a direct mark approach. What was behind this approach or the decision to not type the text? Was that part of the book-design influenced by the way you sing the poems? 

MZ: The idea to have the poems hand-lettered instead of typeset came from the basic understanding that Pink Thunder is not really a poetry anthology, so much as it is a set of "musically-illustrated" poems. Each of the songs really ended up representing a kind of very specific reading of the poem, and the music made those readings very colorful, textured, and limited, but in a strong way, I think. The music eliminates a great deal of ambiguity from the poem, since each tone is either warm or cold, smooth or not, familiar or unfamiliar, and so on. Sounds seem to create visceral reactions that are connected with emotions or meanings, and the sounds on the record do that. So having the poems hand-lettered has a basic resonance with that aspect of the songs. Also, it just looks so amazing and Arrington did such a fantastic job! 

SDS:  Your comments on silence in the Statement are also provocative. You say that within the infinite potential of silence, poets can achieve the most accurate communication, and that the “music of Pink Thunder aspires to, but never fully achieves the condition of silence.” How did this thinking contribute to your song writing? 

MZ: I kind of talked about this in my answer to your question about the book design and why the poems were illustrated. The abstract architecture - and just plain old texture - of music is paradoxically specific. Weirdly, although it has no literal meaning, music creates meanings for listeners that are probably most notable for how specific they feel. When I say that the music in Pink Thunder aspires to the condition of silence, I mean that I wanted it to have as much potential to mean things to listeners as silence has. 

SDS: What are you working on right now? If any, what is the impact of Pink Thunder on new work? 

MZ: I'm composing a lot of instrumental music, I'm well into working on a new record of my own songs, and I'm beginning to read poems for another volume of songs like the ones on Pink Thunder. I also made a version of Pink Thunder as an art exhibit of music-playing found object pieces, and I'm interested in that format for releasing new works both by me and by other artists, as well.

The poems that I was fortunate enough to be able to use for this project were so strong and durable, and they produced songs that are funny, poignant, but above all surprising, that it's definitely made me question everything about the kinds of songs I want to make. On one hand, I plan to continue to investigate these new directions in songs. On the other, I'm also excited to investigate the most basic and traditional song forms, as well. I'd like to write some songs that work well without asking the listeners to do any work to understand the music. 

Michael Zapruder is an award-winning songwriter and recording artist, and a co-founder of San Francisco's Howells Transmitter arts collective and record label. His albums include 52 Songs, This is a Beautiful Town, New Ways of Letting Go, and Dragon Chinese Cocktail Horoscope, which won a 2009 Independent Music Award for Best Folk / Singer Song-Writer Album. His most recent work is Pink Thunder, a collection of free verse pop art-songs made from the poems of more than twenty contemporary American poets. Contributors include Noelle Kocot, James Tate, Bob Hicok, David Berman, D. A. Powell, and Valzhyna Mort.

Sheila Davies Sumner has an M.F.A. in Poetry from St. Mary’s College of California. She has also written short stories which appeared in Rampike, Alcatraz 3, and in the graphic-story magazine, one of one, published by Burning Books. In addition, she has written and produced radio dramas, commissioned by New American Radio, including What is the Matter in Amy Glennon, which was nominated for the International Prix Futura Award.

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