Sunday, December 28, 2008

"Blind Cat Black" as my invisible dog

A man named Zafer Yalçınpınar, a Turkish poet from İstanbul, contacted me very late last night. He and his friends are assembling a website for Ece Ayhan, whose great prose poem Blind Cat Black we scored and released in 2006 with an accompanying art invitational. Zafer asked for an image of the cover of our CD and some information about it. I thought, in addition to sending him what he asked for, I would publish it here as well with a link to his site, the first Turkish website devoted to this complex and important modern poet.

I prepared this essay for a deluxe CD package that we decided to forego, letting the stark simplicity of Julie Doucet's amazing drawings (above) speak for themselves. Many of the embedded links in this essay will pop up mp3s for the part of the score being discussed that you may enjoy or even download and keep, though the CD remains in print and may be purchased from us directly or at most independent shops in St. Louis.

Thanks to Zafer Yalçınpınar and his friends for reminding me that this essay of mine exists and had never been published!


Blind Cat Black as my invisible dog
Ten years and nine lives scoring one poem

By Chris King

This record began when I had no place to be – no job, no home, no binding attachments of any kind, just a battered old Chevy and friends in many places.

One such friend, also free to roam, was Pops Farrar, a retired merchant marine. We ended up, one cold, wet night, on the grounds of an abandoned hippie commune, in central Tennessee. In a cabin home, musicians were improvising on instruments they had made themselves – homemade harps, drums, thumb pianos.

In the atmosphere of a dream, I thumbed through my satchel and laid my hand on a book of Turkish poetry, translated by a rug merchant. I handed the book to Pops, who delivered the poetry, in his Ozark drawl. Someone had a field deck running, capturing sound on cassette. In this strange way, we recorded the opening piece of what would become this poetry score and also “The Secret Jew,” which ends, in Pop’s reading, with the line “the brother of my Ex-Mistress (my Corpse) who disappeared.”

Pop’s voice, and then the music, disappears. There is a page break in the printed text, which Pops apparently didn’t follow, though the poem continues, with a few difficult lines about a “delicate insect-eyed family mask.” I forgot about the part of the poem that Pops forgot about, until I sat down with Adam Long to master this record, nearly ten years later.

One rule we set for ourselves, in poetry scores, is to use every line of the poem, in the order written. Something had to be done with that family mask of insect eyes. By then, Pops himself had disappeared, become a corpse. I called Stefene Russell: cryptic poet, cult film heroine, unpretentious friend. Her voice plugged the hole in the poem, crackling through my cell phone on “That Guy,” over blues licks Tom Hall had originally laid down for the poetry score to Leo Connellan’s Crossing America, which never made it onto that particular journey.

By the time this vagrant record finally consented to be completed, I had many possessions and attachments – a cell phone, a house, a wife, a baby, a newspaper job. The other principals in Poetry Scores who were on the road together when we met Murat Nemet-Nejat, the rug merchant translator poet – Lij and Matt Fuller – would also be more settled, by the time Adam and I assembled a final sequence. Poetry Scores, our hobo phantom of the heart, would be in the throes of incorporation, as a non-profit.

Murat views the poem as an integration narrative, that moves from outcast to citizen, and in fact we followed a similar arc, in the years we wrestled with the score. Some of the poem’s sadness is to be traced, in our productive changes. We cherish our children like the best of fathers, are happy in our homes, and salute the Poetry Scores board, but we miss the days when we wandered the road, with no place to be that was not of our choosing, piled into a car crammed with recording equipment, looking for musicians to breathe sound into poetry.

Lij and I plotted, together, our first poetry score, Crossing America. Matt and I composed, together, the next piece, Go South for Animal Index. It perhaps makes sense that Blind Cat Black, the loneliest poem I have ever known, was left alone, mostly, inside one mind, mine. To borrow an image from the poem, it became “my invisible dog.”

Yet, black cats did adopt us, along the way. The final work done on the record was a car jam of Adam’s master that Lij and I did during a Sunday morning drive, in the wilds of St. Louis County, to a state park on a river. Lij admired the tonal balancing act Adam had managed in the mastering process. On the drive back to my house, we passed a handmade road sign for a lost cat – of course, a black cat. The next line on the poetry score spinning out of the CD deck in Lij’s space barge of a family mobile was “where he secretly escaped, a new self-sufficiency,” as if the poem had suddenly taken on the burden of telling the tale of this stray, black cat we had seen advertised on the roadside.

I fed my invisible dog unlikely scraps, over the years, always trying to finish this thing. Much of the early work was recorded by Meghan Gohil, in a stately St. Louis apartment building. I dragged Pops Farrar and his wheezing concertina over to The Senate, to collaborate with South City raconteur Fred Friction, who doused his cigarette on his tongue as he entered Meghan’s apartment. Tim McAvin wandered through those sessions, then exited my life and stayed gone for years. As we prepared to release Blind Cat Black, ten years later – and, then perform the score, on a Friday the 13th in the haunted month of October – Tim reappeareded in our band, Three Fried Men, a jumble of music and mysteries, with no memory whatsoever of his performances or his one composition you hear on this record.

Roy Kasten and I recorded The Fighting Molly McGuires, a sort of transcontinental roots music supergroup that included All-Ireland piper Michael Cooney. In the session at Roy’s apartment, Cooney unspooled a solo pipes tune. It put me back in Soulard (a section of St. Louis so soused, even its name sounds drunk) in the days when Cooney was the town’s house piper, and the night was longer than it is at present. I thought of a phrase from Blind Cat Black, “from the sea of late hours,” as Cooney played his sea-sick tune. “Your poem is welcome to that particular piece of music,” Cooney said with his gentle brogue, sitting beneath a painting of Cesar Vallejo and an orange.

Lij trekked back into the heart of Tennessee to record a fanciful band, which soon after disbanded. David Jelema, a sophisticated clarinetist, had gathered Nashville’s local pop stars (Sam Baker of Lambchop, Seth Timbs of Fluid Ounces) into a jazz workshop. Hearing the rough gusto of mostly brilliant amateurs, rather than the nuance of a polished ensemble, Lij arrayed microphones to print a scratchy, archaic sound, in a recording that was vintage on the day it was made. That hazy version of David Jelema’s “Blackberry Wine” sounded, to me, exactly like “the marching band of his friend and of death,” which the poem told us we needed to find. We had found it.

I kept a spot in my heart for another phrase from the poem, “bats without wings; wet guns.” I wrote a punk rock melody for it, which I liked, but the poem didn’t like it. After a puzzling series of adventures, involving a baseball mailed back and forth across the Pacific Ocean, I befriended Australia’s unofficial poet laureate, Les Murray. When we two pen pals later met up, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Les gave me recordings the BBC had made of him, including a piece written and performed in what Les calls “bat English.” It was perfect for that part of the poem; now, we only needed a bed of music for it – or, rather, a bar of music, a bar from which to hang a wingless bat, upside down.

Matt and I traveled to San Pedro, with the sentimental motive of recording the basic tracks to our next poetry score, Go South for Animal Index, in the town of the late d. boon, bandleader of The Minutemen. We paid a respectful call to Richard Derrick, a former roommate of d. boon’s, who had recently released some of his dead friend’s rarities.

As gifts, Richard sent us away with some other unreleased recordings from his personal archive, experimental rock music from Los Angeles in the early 1980s. One of his projects, called Middle Sleep, recorded on Lookout Mountain in Laurel Canyon, had recorded an improvisation that sounded good for hanging a bat upside down from a snippet. That same piece, played at full length, without distraction of bat English, sounded like madness putting on a porkpie hat. So it became that, too.

All this while, in a garage in Los Angeles, Matt Fuller was playing guitar and recording his ideas. He was recording the promising parts and mailing them to me, on cassettes, which would go into my car, wherever I was going, and my invisible dog went along with me, too. A rock riff got snagged on “Epitafio.” Country jangle slid down “the sewers of my veins.” A squiggly blues figure seeped into “the muddy music of the ink squid.” Adam liked so much the accidental hiss and frizzle from that home recording of Matt’s, on a cheap guitar with a loose cord jack, that he purposefully mastered the track to make these incidental noises muddier, inkier, more squiddy.

Heidi Dean was always on call, whether she knew it or not, contributing the upper register in my mental mix, and eventually in the studio with her own gracious actual person. She drove her two ridiculously well-behaved dogs, Jim and Georgie, down to Nashville, one of the many times we tried to finish this thing. Matt got on a bird from L.A. We all descended on Lij, the only core member of Poetry Scores still making a living off the music industry.

Lij was desperately out of sorts with his job, which is our passion. Lij’s musical contributions to Blind Cat Black date from that dispiriting weekend. When we thought we would be finished, but had barely accomplished anything, Lij took a call from the “It” rock band that was holding him in thrall at the time. The singer belligerently informed Lij that there was too much “breath” in his vocal tracks and that he wanted to re-record everything. Lij’s black mood settled into a deep, dark, hopeless blue, as he set up a microphone to record his own whistling solo on “My Son is a Queen.” This performance expresses exactly what the poem requires at this point: the half-hearted outpouring of a shattered soul.

None of this, thus far, is particularly Turkish. Nothing wrong with that. No transgression in asking an outcast poem to travel outside of its own culture, to swap spit with other misfits. Murat himself remarked, at the outset of this project, on the odd affinity of Pops’ soft drawl for the opaque English language poetry Murat had so painstakingly carved out of Ece Ayhan’s dense and idiomatic Turkish.

Murat’s own furry, mournful, Turkish Jewish voice makes a pair of cameo appearances, on “A flood of first summer” and “Without wings.” Through the Traditional Crossroads record label in New York – run by an Armenian from Fresno with a sacred love for Turkish music – we found Latif Bolat, another Turk, whose Sufi meditations on oud and piano came (again, from Los Angeles, of all place) like a gift from the gods, to establish musically the Navy blue melancholy of the poem’s closing movement, particularly in “This monster traveler in hashish,” “Mitsrayim” and the final piece in the poem, “Ipecacuanha, the emetic.”

In the end, we owe it to the Turks, this sad, necessary feeling, of seeing a friend from a vast distance, after a long, hot, tight time together, knowing your time apart will stretch further into the future than the time together trails behind.


Free mp3s embedded here - I have included the track number on the final score (which has 28 tracks) so you can see what you are and are not hearing.

All poetry by Ece Ayhan.
All English translations by Murat Nemet-Nejat.

2. “Epitafio
(Fred Friction, Three Fried Men)

5. “The marching band of his friend and of death
(Kennebunkport Jazz Workshop)

(Pops Farrar, Flatrock)

8. “That guy
(Stefene Russell, Tom Hall)

(Fred Friction, Three Fried Men)

(Murat Nemet-Nejat)

(Les Murray, Middle Sleep)

(Middle Sleep)

(Michael Cooney)

(Latif Bolat, Gary Haggerty)

(Three Fried Men)

21. "Why the sea rises"
(Tim McAvin)

22. “Mitsrayim
(Murat Nemet-Nejat, Latif Bolat)

(Three Fried Men)

26. “Without wings
(Murat Nemet-Nejat, Latif Bolat)

(Chris King, Latif Bolat, Heidi Dean)

The CD of the score is still in print and available through us and at most independent shops in St. Louis. The book Blind Cat Black (published in a handsome edition, along with a separate Ece Ayhan long poem, Orthodoxies, both translated by Murat Nemet-Nejat) is still in print and available through Green Integer.

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