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Steve Swallow: The Poetry Of Music

By Published: February 12, 2007
AAJ: I can imagine writing letters to a world-renowned poet must be like showing your score to a famous composer or giving your demo tape to your favorite musician.

SS: Exactly. So it was an incredibly fortunate coincidence that I was able to get to know him and just sit around and talk about the lengthening nights in November and the day-to-day stuff of living, which is a lot of what his poetry is about. To see that the line between everything one addresses in the course of a normal day and that thing you call poetry is really an illusion. That's one of his lines that I've always loved: "Is that a real poem or did you just make it up?" I think somebody said that to him at one point. I love what's implicit in that.

I got lessons from him at every turn. There's an obvious lesson for me to learn about bass playing, which is not to take it too seriously. To approach bass playing, in a sense, in the same way you approach going to the store or eating your toast in the morning.

AAJ: When you first wrote to him, was it simply as a fan of his poetry, or had the idea of using his poetry as a springboard for music already come into your head? When did you first write to him?

SS: I guess the initial letters came after I knew him in Bolinas in 1970 or '71. When I left Bolinas, we just kept in touch, and the idea that I was going to work with his poems had already arisen when we were neighbors. So we were discussing that from the outset. In fact, to go back, there was the extraordinary event of finding that the poetry of his I'd chosen was just what I needed to get over the dissolution of my marriage.

We were writing back and forth at that time, and he also very soundly and very matter-of-factly told me, "Don't worry about it, you'll find a better one. I did." And this addressed that whole immense issue of the wrenching life change that the dissolution of a relationship cause, in terms that made it seem as simple as putting a letter in an envelope and addressing it, or whatever else you do in the course of a day. The amazing thing is that my sense is that the way in which he leveled things for me didn't diminish anything. It had the opposite effect—it made all the events in a day more important and portentous and significant in ways that you had to dig deeply to apprehend. I think that's a lesson that poetry in general can teach.

AAJ: How did Robert Creeley respond to the first record, Home?

SS: He loved it, which was immensely gratifying to me and also a great relief. He loved Sheila's singing. He had been and remained until his death one of the great jazz listeners of all time. He told me early in our relationship that he had written a lot of his early stuff listening to tapes of [pianist] Bud Powell. He liked to reminisce about hearing [saxophonist Charlie] Bird [Parker] at the Hi-Hat Club in Boston when he was going to school in the late '40s. So he was hearing Bird at his peak. He had relationships with several musicians. He and [soprano saxophonist] Steve Lacy were pretty good friends, and Steve did a project using his words. He always seemed to know the guys on the scene and spent a lot of time in the clubs—I guess less as the years went on.

He was an avid listener and an acute listener. He really heard what was going on, and I think the evidence of that is in his line, the rhythms and the structures of his writing. They seem to me to be as musical as music. I think the lessons I've taken from his work inform the way I play as much as any of the lessons I took from [bassist] Percy Heath or [composer] Igor Stravinsky.

I think it's a very good idea to venture beyond your specific medium. If you're a painter you really ought to read a lot and listen to a lot of music, and if you're a musician you really ought to look at a lot of paintings and read a lot. I think the lessons embedded in the other media are often easier to use than what you steal from your fellow musicians. In the end, it's awkward to try to play exactly like [bassist] Paul Chambers. I think you're doomed to fail. But if you read a great poem and it strikes you that there's something about the structure of it that could be important to you as a music writer, you're likely to succeed in following that impulse to a successful conclusion, which would be in effect a successful piece of music. It's akin to if you want to hit the bull's-eye with your arrow, don't look. Just raise the bow and let it rip.

There's certainly value in transcribing your favorite players' solos and learning them, and in studying the musicians you most admire very carefully. I wouldn't deny that that's an important part of the process of getting good at music. But I think that what comes to you from other, non-musical sources can be equally valuable and in many cases more valuable. I found something in Bob's work that spoke directly to me in a way that no other artist of any discipline did, and it would have been foolish to ignore that. I got stuff from him in an extraordinary variety of ways. As I said, I got comfort and solace from him, but I also got technique from him, and I learned a great deal about the general issues of form and shape and elocution—the whole ball of wax.

I think he was pleased to hear that from me because of his high regard for jazz music. I once told him that I thought he was one of the best horn players I'd ever played with. We did occasional gigs together where he would just bring a bunch of his poetry and leap in and read one every now and then. The usual jazz and poetry thing. But I think he was the best at that because it was indeed like accompanying a great saxophone soloist, to leap into the words he was saying, to find something to play with him. He was thrilled to hear that I saw him as a horn soloist and [he] loved that analogy.

I think it was from that conviction that it eventually occurred to me that I ought to write some music to his speech. When I did the album in 1980 with Sheila singing the words, I deliberately violated the sense the words made when placed on the page. When Bob reads, if you're reading along with him, you'll see that the lines mean something. The length of the lines and the placement of the lines on the page. You'll see that his readings honor what's placed on the page.

I didn't do that in writing for Sheila at all. In fact, early in the process of writing that album I wrote to Bob and asked him if that was okay, that I was finding in the course of writing phrases to be sung that I'd often distort the sense that he was making on the page. He wrote back immediately like a permissive dad and said, "No problem at all. Follow your nose." So I did, but I thought that as I approached this album, So There, that there was something extraordinary in the way he delivered his poetry that I had lost, or that I hadn't exploited when I set them for somebody to sing.

So I did kind of the same process that I had done in the 1970s. I went through everything he'd written once again and I made a fresh set of choices. I know that it was 60-some-odd poems, most of them very short poems or fragments of poems, bits of longer poems. I got him to read one summer day a few years ago up here in a studio in Woodstock [NY]. Then I took those 60-some-odd poems and lived with them for some time without setting pen to manuscript paper.

And then [I] slowly began to hear. I think the first thing I needed to hear was a sense of pulse in each poem that I chose. There was by no means a common pulse that ran through each thing I'd chosen. Some of them were slow and some of them were fast and some of them were medium. Some of them seemed to be a straight-eighth-note feel and some of them seemed to be a triplet feel and they were a wildly diverse bunch of poems. I only ended up using 18 of them. There were some real beauties that didn't get done, but if I waited long enough, they all had an underlying pulse. I'd be curious if I applied these same strategies to other poets if the work would go as easily. My feeling is that Bob in particular has a strong relationship to jazz since the 1940s. The rhythms in that music and even the melodies and even, stretching the point a bit, the harmonies. And that's not so far-fetched, given that his relationship to the music has been so ongoing and so intense. If I had to pick a pair of ears to play for, they'd be his without a doubt.

At any rate, it was a very concrete process. If I waited long enough, I'd begin to find a pulse that would translate into a metronome marking. And it would be very specific. It would be "quarter note equals 132" and if you did it at 134 it wouldn't work. But there was, in each of the poems, a pulse going on. I'm sure that he wasn't counting himself off. And I would guess he wasn't doing that deliberately, but it was there.

I think somewhere in his process—in the way he made poems, probably on an unconscious level—there exists that pulse. In the course of getting started on a poem, if he's sitting there at his desk alone, wondering where an idea is going to come from and fiddling with a pencil, I think one of the first things that happened to him was likely a sense of pulse. As I said, I would guess it was unconscious, but I'm convinced that it was there because I was able to discover it in all the poems that I set and in many of the ones that I ended up not setting for one reason or another.

In any case, that was the initial step in my process. Once I'd determined the beats per minute and had the metronome ticking away as he read, it became an issue of time signature and phrase length and, even beyond that, the entire structure of the songs became clear. I readily give him entire credit for all of that, because that's what I wanted—for the poems to generate that information. I felt like a guy who's just taking dictation. After determining the pulse, I'd see that there were clear divisions of four-beat measures and five-beat measures, and it seemed to break into groupings of six beats, and then return later to groupings of four beats. So I'd write that down and jot the words down below the measures as they came out, and before I knew it I'd have a skeletal form of what the piece was.

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