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Steve Swallow: The Poetry Of Music

By Published: February 12, 2007
AAJ: As I normally do, I listened to this album several times before reading anything about it. I was amazed to learn that there were several years between the recording of Robert Creeley's voice and the recording of the music. The seamless integration of those elements is really incredible. It struck me like taking some archival recording out of the library and writing a suite around it. How did you deal with the fact of the permanence of one instrument with which you were going to be playing?

SS: You can imagine my apprehension, because we recorded the piano-bass-string-quartet stuff without reference to the voice at all. We didn't wear headphones and listen to the voice as we played. We approached the music purely as notes in the air. Most of the time, at some point in the rehearsal, I said the words so the guys would have a sense of the mood that they evoked. I think that did have an effect on everybody's approach to the pieces, but there was no sense of where the voice appeared in the pieces at all, except that I knew.

We played in a room without any headphones or any sense of isolation or a metronome. I had a metronome with me, and before we played I set it and we listened to where the tempo was supposed to be. But at the point we began playing, we just played. As music should, it sped up or slowed down as we responded to each other. So the tapes I was left with when I returned from the recording in Oslo were just some very good music, but I had considerable apprehension that stuff might not fit. That we might have, in the course of enthusiastically playing these things, distorted them past the point where the words would work.

It was an immense relief, one of the happiest of days, when I finally got to laying everything together and found that it worked. That we hadn't strayed too far from the phrasing that I needed to make the coupling with the words successful. I was struck once again at how utterly musical Bob was, how spot-on his speech was. I was amazed at how, without reference to a rhythm section, how thoroughly bebop he was. I'd been aware of that as I wrote this stuff, but actually hearing that with the music was a wonderful affirmation for me that I had been right in thinking that his rhythms and his structures and his way of breathing could generate a very particular, and for me very special, music. I guess "generate" is not quite what I mean. His words contained all that, and it was just a question of extracting what was in there already. I really felt that I wasn't making it up, he was.

Steve SwallowAAJ: One of the moments on this record that makes it so hard to believe the story you just told is "Later," which is this amazing sliding-from-line-to-line piece of poetry that stops and starts and continues where you wouldn't expect it to. And the music fits so perfectly, yet not only was he not in the room, but you weren't listening to his voice while you recorded it. I think it's a real triumph on his part and on yours. He was able to evoke something so clearly and you were able to receive it and turn it into music.

SS: As I recall, that was a blues. One of two blues on the album, and I could have done a half-dozen blues from the 60 or so selections. And as I said earlier, I'm sure he was not conscious of that when he was writing these poems. But they're unmistakably blues, and the revelation that they were hit me in the head. He wrote blues, and I'm sure at some level that's what he was doing. He'd absorbed the 12-bar blues form over decades of intense listening. I'm sure he would not have been able to describe a 12-bar blues in the technical terms that you need to play a 12-bar blues, but there it was nonetheless. The man wrote a healthy handful of blues in the course of his life as a writer. I think it was no coincidence that I chose a handful of his poems to set as blues, but I sure wasn't thinking about it when I chose them. That became clear to me during the process of writing the album. The album took three or four years to write. I wasn't writing every day, but it took a long time.

AAJ: You mentioned that you had 60 selections, out of which you used 18 for this record. Do you think there's more of this collaboration to come?

SS: I hope I live long enough. It'll be a while. It was 25 years or so between the first one and this one, and I suspect I won't return to it immediately. I'm still trying to clean the slate and to sense what's next. I'm at an impasse. I guess it's a form of post-partum depression. [laughs] I'm not clear where I'll go, but I know I won't go back to his poems. I'll need to do something else. And I suspect it will be several years before I return to them, but I'm sure if I live long enough I would return to them. My only regret is that there won't be a new Bob Creeley book in a couple of years, because for all these decades I've counted on that and been the first guy lined up to make the purchase. That source is lost to me, but there's so much there I haven't yet addressed that I'd hope to get back to it.

Selected Discography

Steve Swallow/ with Robert Creeley, So There (XtraWATT/ECM, 2006)

Steve Swallow/Ohad Talmor Sextet, L'Histoire Du Clochard: The Bum's Tale (Palmetto, 2004)

Steve Swallow, Damaged In Transit (XtraWATT/ECM, 2003)

Hans Ulrik/Steve Swallow/Jonas Johansen, Trio (Stunt, 2003)

Steve Swallow, Always Pack Your Uniform On Top (XtraWATT/ECM, 2000)

Steve Swallow, Deconstructed (XtraWATT/ECM, 1997)

Steve Swallow, Real Book (XtraWATT/ECM, 1994)

Steve Swallow, Swallow (XtraWATT/ECM, 1992)

Steve Swallow, Carla (XtraWATT/ECM, 1987)

Steve Swallow, Home (XtraWATT/ECM, 1980)

Gary Burton/Steve Swallow, Hotel Hello (ECM, 1975)

Selected Poems of Robert Creeley

An online collection of Robert Creeley's work, and more about his life, can be found at the Robert Creeley Archive of the Poetry Foundation.

Photo Credits
Top Photo: Jos L. Knaepen
Bottom Photo: Juan-Carlos Hernández

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