Friday, May 1, 2009

Scoring a poem is not brain surgery - it's oral surgery

So Joe Freeman and I now have the inklings of a plan to score us some Bradley Bowers. Joe suggested a standing date on Monday nights to work on this thing, whatever it turns out to be, and I like that idea, even if this Monday night I'll be only two days into healing up after my latest round of oral surgery.

In the event that I might not feel like talking too much this Monday night, I thought I would set forth in writing the basic principles of a poetry score, as I have come to practice the form over the last fifteen years with a large, shifting group of collaborators.

The idea is to take a long poem and score it as one would score a film - to use music to illustrate the poem and bring it to life.

This is not as simple as coming up with "background music" or a "voice bed," though that is one approach among many we have used. For stretches of all three of the poetry scores we have finished thus far (and for the one we are working on now), we have scored passages of the poem as spoken word over music.

But that's just one strategy, typically used when a piece of the language seems really difficult to sing (or particularly irrestible to speak or here spoken). In most cases, I much prefer to sing the poetry - to treat the poem as the lyric sheet for an album and start carving the long poem into constituent songs.

When doing so, I don't worry too much about how the poet puncuated his poem. For example, just because the poet sets fours lines apart as a stanza doesn't mean I need to score those four lines as the verse of a song.

The four lines of the stanza might be divided into two songs, or four songs, or some of the lines (or parts of lines) might be spoken and others might be sung. Or (to add another poetry score technique), a phrase within those four lines might be used only to title an instrumental interlude.

I personally prefer popular forms of song - mostly what people describe as rock or folk - that rely heavily on the refrain (or chorus or hook). In our sense of what is proper in a poetry score, it is perfectly acceptable to recycle one or more phrases from the poem as a chorus or a hook, though we have simple rules for doing so that must be obeyed.

The rules for hooks:

Every word in the poem needs to be scored in the order it appears in the poem without interpolating any outside language. Once you have scored a word or phrase in the poem (in any way - spoken, sung, or as a title of an instrumental), then you can go back and reuse that word or phrase, if needed, as a hook in a song. But, once you have sung the hook, you need to go back to where you left off, at the next line or phrase of the poem that has not yet been scored, and score that next.

I will use as an example what Matt Fuller and I did with the first two stanzas of Stefene Russell's long poem Go South for Animal Index, in our score of the poem. Here is the beginning of the poem as she wrote it:
For the world is from the beasts, and it is a beast.
Therefore he that is lost has been reckoned to the crafty one,
and that one is from the beasts that came forth.
No beast exists in the eternal realm.

And desire is in the midst of the beautiful, appetizing trees.
We used the first three lines (but not the fourth line of that stanza) as lyrics to a song, "From the beasts". Note that the title of the song is a verbatim quote from the poem, which is in keeping with the rule that you can't interpolate any outside language into the score.

When you listen to the Three Fried Men song "From the beasts," you will see that we reused some lines for hooks, and repeated one phrase to fit the rhythm of the vocal line. Here is how this part of the score would look on a lyric sheet:

For the world is from the beasts, and it is a beast
The world is from the beasts, and it is a beast
Therefore he that is lost should be reckoned to the crafty one.

And that one is from the beasts, the beasts that came forth.
And that one is from the beasts, the beasts that came forth.
Therefore he that is lost should be reckoned to the crafty one.
If you compare the lyric sheet version to the poem as written, you will see that two complete lines and another phrase within one of the lines get repeated, but after each repetition (to fit the melody and the structural logic of the song), we return to the poem where we left off.

(One discrepancy in the second line of her poem, where Stefene writes "has been" and we sing "should be," is an artifact of a rewrite. Stefene kept revising the poem after we scored it, and I never went back and painstakingly matched her every finessed phrase. Oh, well.)

As for the last line of that first stanza, "No beast exists in the eternal realm," we scored that as spoken word, using the poet's own reading, which Adam Long and I dropped over a fragment of music from the band Middle Sleep that was active in the early 1980s. The resulting piece is called "No beast exists", and it uses the one line of text once only, precisely as written.

For the next line of the poem - the one-line second stanza - we go back to sung text. This is a good example, because it includes a very small cheat. This is about as much as I have ever broken the rules we set for ourselves in scoring a poem, and as much as I would want to see the rules broken in a score that had our name on it.

Here is the line:

And desire is in the midst of the beautiful, appetizing trees.

When you listen to the song from the score, "And desire", and compare the sung text to the words of the poem, you shoud hear a very tiny break in the unfolding of the poem word by word, line by line, in the order written. Here is the lyric sheet version:

And desire is in the midst of the beautiful trees.
And desire is in the midst of the appetizing trees.
Where is the cheat?

The poet wrote the phrase "the beautiful, appetizing trees," but when I sing it the first time through, I sing "the beautiful trees". I skipped the word "appetizing"! I go back and get it, immediately, in the next line of the song, since I am building a little refrain out of this line, but technically I broken a rule by not scoring the three words in the phrase "beautiful appetizing trees" exactly in the order written.

I forgive myself. Ourselves. But I wouldn't have stood for this if we had not immediately gone back and picked up "appetizing" in the next line of sung text.

(By the way, extra credit if you realize that this would not be a cheat at all if the word "trees" had appeared previously in the poem and we had already scored it, because then it would be permissible to repeat it in the spirit of a hook, as long as the next time we scored a word we had not yet scored, it was the next word in the poem: "appetizing".)

I know, I know, that was probaby more painful than oral surgery for most of you!

Free mp3s

"From the beasts"
(Matt Fuller, Chris King, Stefene Russell)
Three Fried Men

"No beast exists"
(Middle Sleep, Stefene Russell)
Middle Sleep, Stefene Russell

"And desire"
(Matt Fuller, Chris King, Stefene Russell)
Three Fried Men


Image is from University of Nebraska Medical Center do-gooders restoring lost teeth for Sudanese refugees.

No comments: