Sunday, January 25, 2009

Teardown day inside a city of the mind and spirit

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This morning is teardown day, after a long weekend in Nashville working on our poetry score to Les Murray's The Sydney Highrise Variations.

Teardown day has always been a bittersweet phenomenon, to me, over twenty years now (!) of making music with substantially the same cast of characters. It's the day when a jumbled mass of possessions that have miscegenated and become mismatched during the session (or the tour) gets sorted out into individual knapsacks and carried away to individual homes.

I have always enjoyed my life outside of making music - I have always been going home to a good woman, an interesting job, and now a beautiful child - but no other part of my life has ever been so communal, so intensely shared, so collective as the experience of being in a band or what has evolved into a songwriting and production team.

In a way, now that we are part of an organization called Poetry Scores, rather than a working rock band (called Enormous Richard, Eleanor Roosevelt, or Three Fried Men, depending on the vintage), the experience is if anything more intense and absorbing. Maybe that's because we have grown older and accumulated significant, life-or-death responsibilties, so that doing our own music is now even more dramatic of a departure from the rest of our individual lives. And maybe it's because of the uncanny element of living with your friends inside this imaginary universe of a poem, which defines the creative process of Poetry Scores.

Rock bands create their own rhetorical spaces: their own songs, setlists, nicknames, inside jokes - their own shared narrative for who they are and why they are doing what they are doing. In a way, you could say the infamous (but very real) band breakup over "creative differences" is precisely the result of one or more of the musicians in a band evolving an independent, different, and inconsistent narrative for who they are and why they are doing what they are doing than the narrative that is understood, even implicitly, to govern the band.

Not to dignify us by the comparison, but the obvious example is John Lennon retranslating his personal narrative of music - of art - after having his mind and body blown by Yoko Ono. Maybe this occurs to me because there is an amateur/outsider Plastic Ono Band painting hanging in the lavatory of The Toy Box, the studio owned by my longtime collaborator Lij, where we have been holed up for three intense days of making music and sleeping on floors.

Poetry Scores, however, has its own modus operandi that is intrinsically different from the pattern of rock bands with their elusive (in many ways, illusory) narratives for who they are and why they are doing what they are doing. Now we deliberately and consciously step, together, into an existing narrative - a long poem - and work together in translating that narrative into the kinds of music we know how to make ourselves or assemble from others.

We are not left, merely, to our own devices. Rather, we collectively employ those devices to refurbish and inhabit a new musical structure based upon an existing set of materials: an existing poem that was already here before we plugged in and is deeply marked by the genius of someone else. In the present project, that's the genius of Les Murray, a genius that is both familiar (he is working-class, humble, funny, deeply modern) and alien: he is wholly Australian and a world more learned and intelligent than any of us.

Maybe I am just trying to trick myself out of being sad (I am always trying to trick myself out of being sad, or scared), but this modus operandi of inhabiting together a narrative that is larger than us and independent of us makes teardown day a little less bitter, if not necessarily any more sweet. Today we leave from here, from Nashville, back to St. Louis and Los Angeles, leaving Lij alone in Nashville (by "alone," I mean with his work and family and life-or-death responsibilities). But we are all also moving, always, inside a city of the mind and spirit called The Sydney Highrise Variations.


Photo of the construction of the Cahill Expressway in Sydney, Australia from The Sydney Morning Herald.

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