Poetry Was My Back-Up Plan, After Music
By Patrick Friesen
My first choice would have been to be a musician, or a singer. But I found out early that I wasn’t a natural at the piano, and lessons didn’t take me very far, though I enjoyed sitting on the bench watching my teacher play. Aside from having a small hand span at the time, I simply wasn’t mechanically good at it. And, I have to admit, I was bored by the lessons, bored by practice. One night when I was supposed to be practicing, out of desperate boredom, I lit a firecracker and jammed it into the space left when I depressed middle-C. I thought I could stop the fuse by pinching with my fingers. I couldn’t; it burned my fingers. The firecracker exploded, rattling the French doors through which my mother came flying a moment later. To this day that middle-C has a black burn mark on it.
I didn’t have in me what it would take to persevere at music. Yet, I had it for writing. I spent thousands of hours writing poetry, working at it, trying to find my voice in words. I’ve sometimes thought I was too close to music to be able to do it. Perhaps this is true for all artists; you work at your second-favorite art form. If this is true, one should be able to spot the foundation of the favourite form within the art one is engaged in. In my case, I think that’s true.
Motion has always been at the core of what I do with words, and often this motion takes a musical direction. I write lyrics for songs occasionally, most notably co-writing with Big Dave McLean, Cate Friesen, Jim Donahue, and with my son Niko Friesen, but more often it’s been an attempt to shape phrases and lines in such a way that they become word music when spoken aloud. This means working with the sound of words in my mouth, the way the word “hand” is a breath of air crossing the vocal cord, thus becoming slightly harsh as it leaves the mouth, and ending with the tongue closing to the roof of the mouth just behind the teeth. It means working with pacing. And it means speaking from the body instead of from the head.
Over the past twenty years I’ve had the opportunity to take this one step further; I’ve been fortunate to encounter musicians and composers willing to work with me.
Marilyn Lerner was the first, and we still work together when we have the opportunity. She can do most anything on the piano, bebop and other kinds of jazz, classical, country, whatever, but what makes our collaboration work is the fact that she is a brilliant improviser. I remember the time she told me to read a poem while she played. She recorded this, played it back, pointing out that she’d played a note for each syllable I’d spoken. Each syllable was colored by a note.
One night, at the Atlantic Jazz Festival in Halifax, Marilyn and I were booked to play in a long room with a bar at one end, and with our small stage at the other. As we performed I became more and more annoyed at the conversations drifting along the room from the bar. I began improvising language, trying to catch the attention of the drinkers. I vaguely remember ranting for a while about white noise filling the room. I caught their attention. They grew silent, turned on their stools to look at us at the far end of the room. After a while they turned back, thinking they’d imagined things, and got loud again. I began another improvised rant. All this while Marilyn didn’t pause, didn’t even raise her head to look at me. She knew I was off-script, but it made no difference to her. She kept playing with my words, with their weight, with their sound. And the room went quiet again.
I felt high that night as we left the gig. We talked, two figures disappearing in the fog on the street as we made our way to the hotel. We talked about the immediacy of improvisation, how clear it feels when the intellect is bypassed; we talked about how the meaning in music is such that musical improvisation is easier than with words. Words have their denotative meanings and an audience expects some version of these meanings from a poet. Unless the poet starts scatting, he is pressed to think quickly enough to provide denotative meaning while improvising. I have played with repetition of lines, or phrases, have played with recyling earlier lines, and I have made up phrases and whole lines. Just as I do in straight readings.
Marilyn Lerner and I have recorded two CDs of improv piano and my words. We work straight from the floor, preferring whole takes to the more typical studio process of layers of sound. This approach allows me the opportunity to get into the rhythm of the poem I’m speaking but also the rhythm of what Marilyn is playing in response to the words. I can improvise somewhat once I click into the motion.
One CD, Small Rooms, was Marilyn and myself playing. The second, calling the dog home, also had the veteran cellist Peggy Lee improvising, and for the first time my son Niko improvising on percussion [listen to a track here]. By this time my friend, the poet Brian Brett, had asked me to come into the studio with him to put some vocals on one of the poems he was speaking with musical accompaniment. This was interesting for me. While I wrote the words that I spoke within Brian’s poem, it was my voice itself, or rather how I used my voice, that he wanted. The voice as musical instrument. The voice as poem.
Over the years I’ve learned to work with my voice in different setups. I’ve worked with a four-piece jazz band, with my son’s jazz trio, and with solo instruments. The voice can be a cello, but it has to play against percussion, generally, and the trumpet, for example. So the lineup of instruments has a significant say on what I’ll speak, or how I’ll speak. And musicians make the same calculations about my poems. The best example of this is probably anytime I work with Sal Ferreras, who leads Poetic License, the band at the Literary Cabaret of the Vancouver International Writers’ Festival.
The last time I worked with him, in 2012, I told him I would be reading poems I’d written in Spain, or just after one of my trips to Spain. I had a few musical ideas, but primarily it was up to Sal. He talked to his musicians about what they might do. What almost made me laugh out loud is when he asked Francois Houle, the clarinetist, to put down his instrument at a certain point in a poem and clap his hands. Palmas, he said. Palmas, a musical technique of the Roma that beautifully wove just a little flamenco coloring into the piece. Then Francois picked up his clarinet and played twenty seconds of gorgeous Jewish music, one of the historical sources of flamenco.
I find, when speaking my poems within a musical context, that I want to lose myself and my words within the motion of sound. I want to enter music’s movement, like the stones water flows around and incorporates into its motion. There is a solidity here, but also a fluid architecture. The stones move as they are shaped. Or, abandoning this flawed metaphor, I want my words to drop into the musical flow and spread concentric, outward-moving echoes that arrive at the banks of the river and return.
I wonder what the musicians are hearing. Margie Gillis, the great dancer, once told me that when she danced to music that was being sung, for example Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen, she heard only the voice, its timbre, its register, and so on. She did not hear the denotative meaning of the language. I suspect most musicians must hear about the same thing. Each word, perhaps each syllable, is a note, a full note, half note or quarter note, some notes flattened, some sharp. But the dictionary meaning, the intellectual intention behind the language, is shrugged off, or not even heard. It’s the motion of sound, its depths or shallows, the interweaving of phrases, the pace, and the sheer marvel of human vocal sound, that matters. And I’m fine with that.
Editorial note: you can purchase one of Patrick Friesen’s CDs directly from him for $10 plus postage. No, you can’t buy them from Amazon.