Steve Swallow: The Poetry Of Music

Jason Crane By

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AAJ: Where in this process did the idea of bass, piano and string quartet emerge?

SS: Quite early. Actually before I began the work. That's just how I do it. I seem to work best if I know before I begin whom I'm writing for and what instruments, what kind of sound. Previous to this album, I'd done a series of trumpet/tenor [sax] quintet albums, just because I wanted to address that very classic Horace Silver Quintet sound. I felt that was something I needed to do in the same way that my best friend Carla Bley decided at some point that she needed to confront conventional big band instrumentation. It's the elephant in the room, and you need to acknowledge its presence. So I'd done a bunch of trumpet/tenor quintet writing over a period of eight to 10 years.

Then I brought that down further to just a trio—the trio with [saxophonist] Chris Potter and [drummer] Adam Nussbaum. Again, before a note hit the page, I'd decided that that's what I wanted to do. I made that decision primarily because my work up to that point had relied on harmonic information, perhaps too much, to generate a structure and provide the soloist with a structure to use.

AAJ: That sounds like the reverse of what happened with So There, where you had a suggested structure and built the rest on top.

SS: Exactly. And as an interim thing, the trio with tenor [sax], bass and drums was an attempt to come to terms with counterpoint. The absence of a chordal instrument made me confront the dynamics involved in two single-note lines interacting. After that project was done, there was a period of reflection that lasted several months. The end result of that was a decision to return to Bob's words and to elucidate further the stuff that I had learned from him over the years. I felt that since I'd done that first album, I had a better handle on what he was doing. I'd gotten better as a reader. And he'd written a lot of stuff that I thought was an advance on his part as well and I wanted to explore that stuff.

I decided at the same time to move in the opposite direction. Instead of narrowing down even further from the trio music, I decided to bite off something that I'd wanted to do for some time but had been afraid of doing, which was to write a lot of notes on the page. This led me to string quartet and to non-improvising musicians. Again, I'd been listening to that genre for years, but I really intensified my listening and bore down on Beethoven and Shostakovich and Haydn. Of course, the most I listened, the more thoroughly intimidated I became. I nearly bagged the project several times and felt that it was the height of presumption to write string quartet music.

But I kept returning to it and decided very early in the process, before any notes got written, that I wanted [pianist] Steve Kuhn to be involved. In part because he's a very good friend and a friend of long-standing. He'd become a friend of Bob's as well, and I liked that connection. Beyond that, I felt he was the right guy for the job. He'd done some projects with [composer] Gary McFarland many years before that I greatly admired. One was called October Suite (Impulse!, 1966). Gary McFarland is a vastly under-sung great jazz writer. His career was incredibly brief, and there's not enough evidence of how remarkable his ears and his skills were. Steve had done some stuff with him that ventured into that very murky grey area between improvised and written music, or jazz and classical music, whatever you want to call it. I wanted to go there and saw that Steve was ideally equipped to do that. I knew also that he had a considerable knowledge of the music and the idiom that I was, with great trepidation, approaching.

I was lucky that I had these poems to give me so much in very concrete terms—structure, phrase lengths, rhythm feels, all that kind of stuff. It's really scary to write for musicians who don't normally play together and to find the music that works to bring musicians of disparate backgrounds together. You never know until you do it whether it's going to work or not. I think I was the recipient of a certain amount of good luck, for which I'm very grateful.

Steve and I went to Oslo [Norway] and met with the Cicada Quartet. Neither of us knew them, nor did we know their work. Luckily, we all enjoyed each other's company very much and found ways to work together and to work out whatever problems arose in playing together. It was a great stroke of luck. I contacted them on the advice of Manfred Eicher, the head guy at ECM. I sifted through the people I knew who might steer me toward the right string quartet, and eventually settle on Manfred and put myself in his hands. I asked him to get me a quartet, the one he thought would be best. He took that very seriously and made me send scores. When I asked him, I was about halfway through the project, so I sent him about 30 minutes worth of string quartet writing. He took a careful look at it and suggested that quartet, and I'm very grateful to him.

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

About Steve Swallow
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