Friday, December 5, 2008

The harpist that Adam brought in from the session

Amy Camie is one of many gifted musicians Grammy-nominated studio wiz Adam Long has brought into my life and record collection, from the sessions he engineers when he's not doing Poetry Scores sessions with me (or treating me to chicken wings at the lesbian bar).

Adam recorded a record of 13 harp "expressions" for Amie that she released on the CD A Space Within. Adam keeps boxes of this CD on hand to give to people as something anyone would benefit from, it's so artful, spiritually evolved, and relaxing. He gave one to me.

These "expressions" on the harp are numbered, rather than titled. In fact, on the CD jacket, after each number appears a long underscore, a blank. As a headnote, Amy invites the listener, "As you listen to these expressions, let yourself imagine ... play like a child. If thoughts and ideas come to you, express them ... create your own titles ... write your own words ... draw your own pictures ... dance your own dance ..."

This is basically an invitation to turn it into a poetry score! - a long poem scored as if it were a film. So that's what I did, with two of the "expressions," after getting her permission.

Matt Fuller and I were working, at the time, on the score to Go South for Animal Index by Stefene Russell. Most of it we had scored with our own songwriting on guitar, halfway up South Mountain, in the Phoenix city park.

But we didn't quite get through all of the poem in our short time together in the desert, and at the time we lived on opposite ends of the continent. So I restlessly pored through any source recording I could get my hands on, looking for the right home for various scraps of language. This is my favorite part of scoring a poem, the experience of inhabiting a long poem like a landscape, always looking for signs of the poem in everything I hear.

"Expression 3" on A Space Within suggested a melody to me that perfectly fit the period and rhythm of a line of Stefene's poem: "And the mouth opens in the seeding, deciduous trees." This line is actually the second of seven refrains that recur throughout Go South. Matt and I had written one part that we thought would fit all seven - you know, like a refrain - and it did, but we found that same melody got monotonous when repeated for seven short songs. So I assigned this line to Amy's "Expression 3" and provisionally retitled it "And the mouth opens."

Then, I thought, if we are varying our approach to a refrain, we should make a refrain of our variation. So, I looked for another of these refrains that resisted, a bit, the melody Matt and I had written for it, found the line "Tell me: what is the power that will wash an entire generation?" - a powerful, powerful, powerful line, very near the end of the poem - and then went looking for one of Amy's harp pieces that would suit it. I found it in "Expression 10," a powerful, powerful, powerful piece of music, which I provisionally retitled "Tell me: what is the power."

Making these assignments work within the context of the entire score took a lot of work and magic on Adam's part. Amy's harp expressions were too pretty for the rock music that surrounded them and for the voice (mine) that was delivering the lines. So we got more and less pretty.

First, we got much more pretty by bringing in Christopher Y. Voelker, who crafted beautiful, interwoven lines on violin and viola that added rich texture and color to the graceful repetitions of Amy's harp compositions. We also brought in the songbird Tim McAvin to sing "Tell me: what is the power" - his strong, assured voice held its own with Amy's harp.

For the other vocal, we went in the opposite direction. We decided to keep my exhausted, frog-throated, half-asleep scratch vocal on "And the mouth opens," which was so bad it worked, as if the mouth opening to sing the line "And the mouth opens ..." were the mouth of one of the cancer corpses that haunt Stefene's poem. We then added several tracks of my yoga breathing, the sound of wind whistling through old scar tissue, which furthered the effect of disability and impairment.

Both tracks still wanted something else to tie them together and import more of the atmosphere of the poem. So to both tracks we added static from a walky talky and obscure, foreign, scrambled voices from Numbers Stations, the rumored spy radio transmissions. Adam actually played these effects - in particular, the gorgeouos tones of a gong from one of the Numbers Stations - to great effect, like an artist working his preferred instrument with precision and daring, which is why he will win one and maybe two Grammys in February.

I started all this to talk about Amy's new CD, which is itself a sort of a poetry score to an ancient Mesopotamian myth, Nanna and Ningal. But I'll save that for another day. Soon.



fallingdamps said...

Interestingly enough, Stefene discovered and became fascinated with the Number Stations in between the time she wrote the poem and she heard this recording. This track from Go South is an amazing recording that made a strong impression on Stefene, no less because she recognized the cryptic transmission hanging in the static.

Poetry Scores said...

I'm pretty sure I was working from a CD of the stuff she gave me ... even heinously long blog posts must admit some detail.

rs said...

I have a friend in Atlanta whose main ax is the glass harp. Not the Ben Franklin style but a set of crystal wine glasses that are tuned by the volume of water in each. He built a custom case to carry the glasses and stand that fits neatly into the back of a '96 Buick Roadmaster station wagon. The back of the wagon has a frame he built into the back of it to hold the case and allow easy access via a large drawer slide-like system.

Brien Engel can make the glasses sound like everything from a complete symphony to a pedal steel. Several years ago, one morning on our Dunnavant back porch he once played the Jimi Hendrix version of The Star Spangled Banner on the bowed saw!

If Brien and Adam ever met they would probably not be able to quit talking long enough to breath.

Poetry Scores said...

Are you coming here, Richard, or are we going there?

rs said...

Brer Dog,

I don't know yet whether I'm coming or you are going. There are plenty of positives to either option. I hope we can figure this thing soon and get it together for '09.