Among the varied collaborations between poets and musicians, or the adaptation of poetry to music, the setting of Carla Harryman's genre-busting poetry to improvised music by Rova Saxophone Quartet's Jon Raskin is outstanding. Not only because of Harryman's avant-garde poetic languageoften focusing on the language itself, its contradictions and shortcomingssubverting its attempts to capture the fleeting thoughts of the poet or contemplating on its contribution to common complicity to power; rather, mainly due to its success at creating an original sonic world that wraps Harryman's radical words with chaotic, even disturbing, polyphonic staginghighly suggestive, rich in detail and meticulously arranged.
Raskin enjoys the presence of Harryman herself, who has experienced in many inter-disciplinary projects such as the Poet's Theater that operated in San Francisco in the seventies and eighties and many other poetry-performances projects. Other Bay Area forward-thinking improvisers such as percussionist Gino Robair, vocalist Aurora Josephson and guitarist Ava Mendoza augment this project.
Each musical adaptation is a world of its own. The roaring, metallic assault of "Fish Speech" reflects the chaotic state of nothingness sketched in Harryman's poem, "in the beginning," before the notion of language was conceptualized to include the distinction between here and end, inferno or extinction. Harryman and Raskin's plain narration in the two parts of "Open Box" is embraced with fragmented, weird sounds, a true abstraction for the disjointed imagery of this poem. Her insight of the poetic action is described as
The psyche of the poet Exceeds the poem Without the poem Disappearing Into an exterior world In which the poem cannot survive The poem is therefore A representation of an edge Performed in other worlds Not this Once .
"LA Reactive Meme" is a short meditative musical interlude, coupling mysterious overtone singing with Raskin' slow breaths on baritone sax. Jospehson sensually recites "Song for Asa" over inventive, sparsely rattling sounds. Harryman, Josephson and Roham Sheikhani's long choral narration of the enigmatic "A Sun and Five Decompositions," which begins with: "(we are floating under it) so the body is experienced as imaginary because we share a double experience...," intertwines theatrical speaking roles woven with minimal yet noisy textures, while "JS Active Meme" ends this exciting journey with a psychedelic metallic jam.
Open Box is a remarkable reflection of experimental poetry with experimental music, both idiosyncratic and challengingand totally arresting. Tzadik, the label that released another unique adaptationthe poetry of Paul Celan to music by Dan Kaufmanwith Force of Light (2007), deserves huge applause for supporting such a project.
Track Listing: Fish Speech; Open Box Part 1; Open Box Part 2; LA Reactive Meme; Song for Asa; A Sun and Five Decompositions; JS Active Meme.
Personnel: Carla Harryman: reader; Jon Raskin: reader, sax, vocals; Liz Allbee: trumpet, electronics; Eli Crews: pro tools, studio; Aurora Josephson: reader, vocals; Ava Mendoza: electric guitar; Gino Robair: drums, electronics, percussion, piano; Roham Sheikhani: reader; John Shiurba: electric guitar.