Sunday, March 24, 2013

Scoring Confucius and Ezra Pound in Los Angeles and Redondo Beach

Matt Fuller scoring Confucius on the Redondo Beach boardwalk.
Poetry Scores is an all-volunteer international arts organization that translates poetry into other media on almost no budget. To have productions ongoing in St. Louis, Istanbul, Hawaii and Los Angeles, as we do, requires generous contributing artists and a lot of creative, multi-tasking scheduling. For my part, I cannibalize parts of family vacations to keep the dream alive.

My family of three just finished a week in one of Poetry Scores' sister cities, the great city of Los Angeles, where I was granted permission to spend my nights recording music so long as I didn't rush my family through our day plans. So by day I took a 9-year-old to Universal Studios, the California Science Center, a major film premiere and up Mount Hollywood on horseback, then after dinner I drove up the freeway to the western San Fernando Valley, where the now misnamed Hollywood Recording Studio is based.

How does an arts organization record for a week in a Los Angeles studio on a tight budget? By making the right friends. I took my first (and only) recording studio class at Washington University with Meghan Gohil, who went on to record my first band's first record, Why It's Enormous Richard's Almanac, in 1990 and we have been together ever since.

Hollywood Recording Studio has taken the lead in producing one of Poetry Scores' new projects, Songs Confucius Sang, new folk-rock musical settings of ten of the Ancient Confucian Odes as translated by Ezra Pound. (This is a partnership with New Directions and the Ezra Pound Estate, which graciously granted us permission to work with Pound's fabulous language in new media.) Meghan already has produced basic tracks for a number of our Confucius compositions with my songwriting partner Matt Fuller (now of Hollywood) and a ghost from our past, bassist Jay Lauterwasser, now of San Diego but a former child clown who had never set foot outside of Missouri when he joined our band Enormous Richard more than 20 years ago.

Matt Fuller and Jay Lauterwasser tracking
a song Confucius sang at Hollywood Recording Studio.

I drove up to the west Valley every night this past week and sang my vocal tracks on our Confucius scores, knowing many of my vocals would later be replaced, as I am getting more and more interested in working with other (better) singers -- and many of these Odes are told from a woman's point of view, which gives us a golden opportunity to turn lead vocals over to longtime contributing artist Heidi Dean.

When I arrived in Los Angeles, we had songs at least sketched out for almost all of the ten Odes that we are scoring. A couple of gaps remained, however, and some of our song sketches were too sketchy for Meghan to produce the basic tracks. So Matt and I needed to get in a songwriting session, and we have a history of working in unique places. We scored Stefene Russell's Go South for Animal Index in Phoenix's mountainous city park (back when I was a travel editor on assignment) and recorded our sketches in a hotel in San Pedro. We owed a visit to our longtime contributing artist Richard Derrick in San Pedro anyway, so I talked my way out of an entire day of family time on Thurday and we headed down to the peninsula.

I had my mind on a place that Richard and his musical partner Crane had introduced me to, the International Boardwalk in Redondo Beach. Richard and Crane took me to this fabulous beer bar on the boardwalk called Naja's Place, and I could imagine Matt and me ensconced on the concrete boardwalk, drinking weird beers and finishing our Confucius score.

We got down to Redondo before noon on the first day of spring, well before the summer season, so the staff at Naja's was slow to report to duty. A place next door called the Corner Pub was open, however, so I went in to taste whatever seemed to be their best beer. It was a very good beer indeed. The man who poured the beer for us was Asian. I told him we came down to the pier to set Confucius to music and asked if he were Chinese. "Korean," he said.

Korean. Things were looking up.

In our early bands Enormous Richard and Eleanor Roosevelt, Matt was the drummer, though I eventually learned that he is an excellent guitar player who is always bursting with song ideas. We wrote our first songs together at Matt's apartment on Kingsland just off the University City Loop, a block down from a Korean diner, and we would always start our sessions with a walk to the diner for bibimbop.

I asked the waitress if they served bibimbop?

She more or less shrieked with delight -- over my pronunciation, of all things. Yes! they serve bibimbop. And no one ever pronounces it properly! She went to prepare our bibimbop and insisted that we come on in, commandeer a table, and work on our songs in their restaurant overlooking the pier.

Bibimbop from Corner Pub in Redondo Beach.

The bibimbop was delicious, and the songwriting went well. The Poetry Scores model is subservient to the poem we are scoring, so Pound's extremely irregular and daring translations call for irregular and daring songs. But we crave form and melody, so the problem becomes making highly irregular lines conform to a hummable melody and a recognizable song structure, with verses, choruses, bridges and outros, without changing the words. It's what we do. We did it.

Confucian songwriters' view of the harbor, with beer

Then we took a break and drove down to San Pedro to visit with Richard Derrick. Richard has been battling his way through some severe physical challenges. All the time we have known him, he had early onset Parkinson's, a condition that has worsened over time. Recently he suffered a fall and broke a clavicle that pinched a nerve and left his left arm - at least temporarily - gnarled and useless. Unsteady on his feet and with only one good arm, Richard has been sticking close to home and clearly welcomed some company.

Chris King and Richard Derrick in his back yard in San Pedro.

We met Richard Derrick through Derrick Bostrom, the Meat Puppets' drummer, who gave us a windshield tour of Meat Puppets sites when we were scoring Go South in Phoenix. At that time Bostrom had just been approached by Richard to write a liner note for a CD Richard had produced of his jams with his friend and former roommate, the late D. Boon of The Minutemen. On the strength of that connection we tracked down Richard for a windshield tour of Minutemen sites in Pedro. At the end of that, our first visit to Pedro, as an afterthought Richard copied some of his own music onto CDs for us. A compilation of jams by his L.A. band Middle Sleep from the early 1980s, we have been incorporating this fantastic post-progressive rock music into our poetry scores ever since.

When we made our way back to Redondo Beach after a long visit with Richard in San Pedro, the boardwalk was winding down. We were welcomed back into our Korean songwriting haven and ordered sushi for dinner, but the waitress -- a younger white woman working for our hosts, the Korean brother and sister -- warned us they would be closing soon. When our hostess learned of this warning, she took our check into her personal custody and told us to keep writing our songs. She would stay open for us.

I asked for her name. She pointed out the window to the sky. "Moon."

We came to Redondo Beach to set Confucius to music, and had been taken into the protective custody of a Korean woman named Moon. After she prepared us our traditional songwriting delicacy. You could make it up, but not that good.

As we worked late into the night, I noticed that Moon was doing her own sidework as we scored Confucius in her restaurant. She was sitting a few tables over, chopping vegetables and preparing sauces. I started to feel a part of something very ancient. These ancient Confucian Odes, so often told from a woman's perspective, have many sharp images of a woman's thankless, tedious, lonely domestic labors.

Three years a wife, to work without a roof,
up with the sun and prompt to go to bed,
never a morning off. I kept my word.

Matt played guitar, I sang Confucius and Pound, Moon chopped vegetables and kept her word.

We overstayed our welcome, as drinkers and dreamers do, and ended up alone out on the dark boardwalk, trying to make music out of the very last scrap of these Odes we had not set to music, a fragment about a river tumbling north, "tumultuous, animate". When we thought we had it figured out, we went into the beer bar Naja's -- open now, but not for long -- to use the restroom. As we were doing so, into the bar pounded a song by none other than The Meat Puppets, "Lake of Fire." That's the Meat Puppets, who sent us to Richard Derrick, who sent us to Redondo Beach.

Matt looked at me, and I looked at Matt. We didn't have to say a word. Confucius, Ezara Pound, the moon, also, didn't have to say a word.

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