Parlando Project Summer 2019 Top Ten part 1

It’s that time again, when we look back on the past months and see what pieces were the most liked and listened to this summer. I do it countdown style, so here we start with the 10th, 9th, and 8th most popular pieces this season.

10. Pods (Neponset) by Carl Sandburg.  Do I say Sandburg is the forgotten Imagist too often? Maybe, but to my mind this is one of the finest short Imagist poems I’ve come across in my wanderings through early Modernist verse. Another thing I keep trying to counteract: the idea that Sandburg is simplistic and that his verse is absent the levels of ambiguity and ineffability that “great poetry” is said to offer. This 7-line poem about a small Illinois village with gardens and the train passengers traveling to see scenic wonders is an example.

My family has to put up with an amount of interruption by the focused and repetitive work of producing these pieces. Listening to the process of composition, when it involves (as it sometimes does with me) a lot of trial and error is  trying—but listening to the final mixing stages is excruciating. I mix at modest volume levels, but I’ve been told that headphones are not to be trusted in that work—so they hear these pieces sometimes being wiggled this way, and wrung out that way, over and over.  Not a good way to appreciate a piece.

So, it was a surprise this summer when my wife came in and told me this one sounded like one of the best ones I’ve done. Maybe it made it to number 10 because it stands to be listened to more than once?

 

 

9. I Saw a Peacock by Anonymous.  Long a leading composer in the folk music field, Anonymous can also craft a pretty good Surrealist poem with a humorous trick: the line breaks lead you to connect the thing previous with the last part of the line—when the “real” and much more mundane connection (as opposed to the wondrously apocalyptic thing you believe you’ve heard) is in the next line, after a breath pause of the line break.

I’ve read that this poem impressed Margaret Atwood in her early childhood with the wonder that poetry could create.

I seem to be working more and more with string and other orchestral compositions this summer. Part of that is that I’ve always been drawn to things that mix the attack-envelope of percussion instruments with the varieties of note length that stringed instruments, particularly bowed string instruments, can create—but it’s also because I was able to afford some additional orchestral instruments to play via my guitar’s MIDI pickup or with my little plastic keyboard this summer.

 

Here Be Monsters

Didn’t work? OK, try Black Mountain school with polka. No? Dubstep Hildegard von Bingen! Hard Bop Thomas Hardy! Still coming? Tell the gunner to give’em both barrels then. No, no! Not those barrels…

 

8. For Once, Then, Something by Robert Frost. Here’s an example of why I’m particularly grateful to the hardy listeners of these pieces. While I’m constrained by difficulties in obtaining permission to present writings still in copyright, I hope that you can see that I vary the type and the outlook of the poetry and other writing that I can and do use. I try too to mix Poetry’s Greatest Hits with deep cuts from esteemed poets, and more than a little of the lesser-known but worth considering.

Of course, for some (Many? Most?) the idea of poetry as an everyday thing that is not some mix of fearsome and intended obscurity, snores-ville decorative excess, and hoity-toity crap for those with nothing better to do has already removed them from reading or listening here.

Well then, as I’ve described this project from the beginning, I combine these words, mostly poetry, with various music. While people might just ignore poetry, they actively hate music that they don’t like. That disgust leads some (Many? Most?) to cling to a genre of music they find most able to please them, and to mark other sonic places as “here be monsters”—hideous creatures that disrespect what is right in music.*

Music doesn’t know what’s right and proper. It just wants to sound itself.

So how many people are out there who want to hear even the beloved, famous, respected American poet Robert Frost chanted to a pulsating Electronic Dance Beat arrangement?

Well, if you are the kind of people who read, listen, follow, and help propagate what the Parlando Project does, there are enough of you to make this the 8th most popular piece this past summer!

 

 

*By the way, if you don’t like some of the audio pieces that are presented here, that’s OK, even expected. Given that I’m pushing my capabilities as a composer and musician, you might even agree with my intent, yet not wish to negotiate my actualities. That’s part of why I like to mention that we vary things: you may like the next one that comes out, or enjoy taking a look at the nearly 400 pieces we have in our archives.

The Parlando Project audio pieces are available on Spotify. With the current Spotify mobile app you can even create playlists of your Parlando favorites—and exclude your “not so much favorites.”

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Soon Be Gone

I start off talking about the words or context in which I experience the words, mostly poetry, that are used here. That goes on, and I notice that I’m getting near to—or even above—what I consider to be reasonable length for a blog post (around 1,000 words*) and I haven’t mentioned the music.

In the end I’ll often mutter a few things about the instruments used, urge you to listen—and roll the footnotes!

So, let’s start off today talking about the music for a little bit. I enjoy the variety of musical contexts I use for the words here. I have wide musical tastes, and yet there are still genres and sounds I haven’t yet used that I will use as this project continues to push toward 400 audio pieces. Inexpensive technology has offered an enormous audio palette to a composer/musician, unbelievable sounds and resources compared to what was available even to the commercially viable counterparts of my childhood. And yet all these possible variations are not used. How curious. How self-limiting.

Well, there are reasons for that. While I admire musicians that push out the boundaries of what they do, the marketplace often finds such efforts self-defeating, and I don’t know that they are misreading substantial audiences in their verdict on that. I’d like the audience for what the Parlando Project does to grow. Indeed, reflecting on the amount of effort that goes into this, it’s nutty that it continues at this level for an Internet audience a thousands-time smaller than pictures of a sandwich. But I’m also grateful for an audience that can at least tolerate my musical varieties on top of poetic varieties. That’s you. You’re rare. You’re not supposed to exist, and yet you do. That’s the audience this project deserves.

Perhaps a more important reason is that technology, tools, resources—while they can extend what an individual musician/composer can do—in the end revolve around the axis of the abilities of that musician/composer. I’m far from a virtuoso on any instrument, some days I’m not even competent on my core instrument, the guitar. And then there’s a key problem I work around constantly: I’m a poor singer.

I use spoken word, chant, talk-singing, altered timbres, but real, full-voiced, pitched singing of melodies escapes me. A beautiful resource I don’t have available! This limit constrains me, frustrates me—though it sometimes leads me to work on ways of integrating poetry and music other than the existing traditions of art song.**

But some material must be sung. Today’s piece is one of those. “Soon Be Gone”  is imaginatively taken from an episode early in the adult life of my late wife, who left her Twin Cities hometown to follow a mountebank to southeast Iowa where he had a job offer to work as a radio announcer. It didn’t go well, or work at all really, and she traveled back north by north-west to home where she accepted my pretentions.

When I wrote “Soon Be Gone”  some years back, not long after she had died, and decades after the events, I made some choices. I think primarily from my grief, I wrote it from the view of the mountebank, who in the piece is reflecting immediately on his loss of her.

Soon Be Gone lyrics

“Hebrew sun?” If you’re facing north, one reads its daily path from right to left

 

The opening two lines of the bridge section before the final chorus are a variation taken from a translation of “The Song of Solomon”  which had a special meaning to my wife and I.***

As a lyric writer I often prefer to leave “the plot” of a song undetermined, and if it works “Soon Be Gone”  doesn’t require that the listener know those things. I mention this as a suggestion to writers here that compression and leaving out details could add a mysterious power to a song or poem. If your listener wants to connect, give them space to fall into your words.

farfisa where the action is

It’s an organ. And it’s LIVE! Forget the dance—run!

 

The difficult and ultimately imperfect task of recording the vocals for this piece aside, I did enjoy plugging my Telecaster into real cranked-up amps and doing the two-guitar weave at the center of this song. The other featured element here is a Farfisa combo organ**** (well, a virtual instrument recreation of one) which is a tip of the hat to Dave Moore who played one with the LYL band back in the 80s.

To hear the results, use the player below. I’ll be back with more poetry and “other people’s stories” soon.

 

 

*It takes time to create shorter posts about complex subjects, but I feel the author owes it to their audience. I’ve subscribed to about two-dozen blogs that I read whenever I get a break from this project, and nothing pains me more than a talented and perceptive blog author with more words than content. Although elaborative words strung together have their pleasures, I’m often in the mood to spend more time thinking and doing than reading. This is probably why I’m drawn to the compressed lyric form in poetry.

**I rather like art song settings of poems, though they often seem to me to be one solution to the problem of setting complex texts to music while there are others less explored (what we do here.) And since I can’t sing them, there’s little incentive for me to write complicated melodic lines for singers, which means that even if I had singers to write for I’d probably find that skill undeveloped on my part.

***For example, the 8th chapter in the King James Christian version which renders things this way: “Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death….”

****It’s falling back into the mists of time, but a player of a small electronic organ shaped like an elongated suitcase and fitted with a folding or removable set of legs was once a common feature of rock’n’roll bands. They were often played through overtaxed guitar amplifiers with only one hand playing arpeggiated parts like I use here. This sort of thing is sometimes associated with “garage rock” combos of the early 60s styled like The Kingsmen, ? and the Mysterians, The Sir Douglas Quintet, or Paul Revere and the Raiders et al. But that trope survived into the “Rock” evolution later in the decade too: The Doors, Country Joe and the Fish, early Pink Floyd and Grateful Dead and so on.

The Farfisa was an Italian-made-and-designed brand used in this role. Later in my century Phillip Glass utilized Farfisa combo organs in creating his version of composed music built on repetitive and driving organ arpeggios. The timbre of those combo organs always had me listening to Glass’ early work anticipating that they would, at any moment, break into “96 Tears”  or “Light My Fire.”

No Common Ground

We’ll be back soon with words we’ve adapted from well-known and not-well-known writers, but it seems like a good time* to post this recent performance of a Dave Moore song.

I was looking at some other poems and words apropos of winter, Black History Month and romantic love yesterday. I think I’ve found some too. You should see some of what I make of this later this month.

Still, I made the decision to use “No Common Ground”  late last night—Dave doesn’t even know it’s going up here—and so I haven’t given him an opportunity yet to tell you anything about it. I’m going to even that out by not telling you anything about his words myself either. The song speaks for itself.

But of course I have to say something, so I’ll talk about the musical performance. This started out with Dave singing it live, one-take. There was a “scratch” keyboard track too that he played as he sang, as well as the drums. I took this performance and created the arrangement you’ll hear below, adding bass (both electric bass and bowed contrabass), a string section, a few electric guitar licks, a synth pad, and the vibraphone part. The whole thing is around a dozen tracks, which by modern digital recording standards is not complex, but then my goal here was to make it sound no more complicated than conventional rock combo instrumentation.

In the course of the Parlando Project I’ve grown attached to writing bowed string parts while retaining a conventional rock’n’roll rhythm section. When I charge myself with putting on airs, I argue with myself that I grew up on Leiber and Stoller productions which used strings, and that Charles Stepney** and other R&B producers extended this idea.

Strings in Rock'n'Roll

Common Ground and basso ostinato.  Leiber and Stoller at the piano, and standing behind: Lester Still, Jerry Wexler, the Coasters, and Ahmet Ertegun. On the right side: Charles Stepney, a composer/arranger/musician who should be better known.

 

Real orchestral composers will recognize that I’m not all that sophisticated in my parts here, and most always elsewhere in this project too. Part of that is working within my limitations and resources—but part of that is intent. To hear the intent and Dave’s song, use the player below.

 

 

 

 

* No broadcast joint-congressional speeches or elderly rich and tender egos were harmed in the making of this song or post. Offer void where prohibited. Opinions are worth actual cash value only. Contents may settle during shipment. Free your mind and your ass will follow. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. The modern day composer refuses to die!

**Long-time readers here know that I’m a bit of a bug about Charles Stepney. There’s a lot I don’t know about him and his work, but some of his arrangements connected with me from the first time I heard them in 1968. There’s a bit more about him here, here, here, and here. I wasn’t thinking about it when I was looking for a instrument to carry a more percussive melody line in the arrangement and chose the vibraphone, but vibes were composer/arranger Stepney’s original instrument.

a new mix of On the Troop Ship to Gallipoli

I don’t plan on making a habit of this, but the next morning after I posted the audio piece where I perform an “Imagist” revision of Rupert Brooke’s late fragment written shortly before his death while serving in WWI,  I wanted to change a few things about the mix.

WWI troop ship

Soldiers on a  World War I troop ship in transit

What’d I change? I delayed the entry of my piano part to a few bars later. I remixed the concluding electric guitar part entirely, it’s now a bit more forward in the mix. And finally I added an E-Bow electric guitar top line over the final section. Why did I make those changes? Just trying to give the piece a bit more sense of “build” as the troop ship steamed along carrying Brooke and his fellow soldiers to the disaster that would be the Gallipoli campaign. The newly added E-Bow part is probably the biggest change. The E-Bow is a clever gadget that magnetically drives a single instrument string as if it was excited by a bow. As the name suggests, it’s sometimes used to give the effect of violin or viola sound coming from a guitar—which Jimmy Page and Eddie Phillips aside, is not designed to be bowed, however I think the part I played sounds less like a orchestral violin and more like an overblown free-reed instrument.

In composing the music for the Parlando Project pieces, I like using different sounds like a writer might use different images or connotative words in text. If you listen, low in the background of the mix I have a Mellotron flute part. Of course this late 20th Century instrument would not have been known to Brooke and his fellow troops, but for those late 20th Century people a low Mellotron flute part brings to mind (ear?) The Beatles “Strawberry Field Forever” or “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” or other English rock band recordings of the 1960s, so I was trying to bring in some sense, however anachronistically, of the soldiers thinking of home, and then at end I add that much louder, strident and free-reed sound from the E-bow guitar part.  Similarly my fizzy guitar phosphorescent plankton bow-wave and electric bass thrumming ships engines. Hope it all works for you.

The new mix replaces the old one as of early this morning. To make it easy to hear the new mix, I’ve embedded the player to hear “On the Troop Ship to Gallipoli” below. The explanation of how I revised Brooke’s words, as if he’d been edited by Ezra Pound or had lived long enough to embrace the ideas of modernist poetry, is covered in the previous post here.