Multigenerational Music: Jesse Paris Smith and Patti Smith

Jesse Paris Smith and Patti Smith

Jesse Paris Smith and Patti Smith at The Noguchi Museum (Photo: Patrick McMullan Company, 2012)The subject of intergenerational performers has been dear to my heart since I learned that my maternal grandmother’s family had broadcast a live AM radio show on Saturday nights from New York City in the Thirties and Forties. I was inspired to explore the topic further while attending Patti Smith concerts in NYC and Baltimore, where her son Jackson and her daughter Jesse joined her onstage. Since I am a musician and the theme of the upcoming LPR issue is music, I wanted to share what I learned. To get it right, I enlisted the help of Jesse Paris Smith, Patti Smith’s daughter.

Jesse describes her mother as “a true Renaissance woman,” which is evident from any bio. Known as “the Godmother of Punk,” Patti is a singer-songwriter, a poet and a visual artist. In 2005, she was named a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In 2007, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2010, she received the National Book Award for her memoir Just Kids and an ASCAP Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2011, she won a Polar Music Prize. And it won’t end there.

Jesse, whose guitarist father is the late Fred “Sonic” Smith, notes reverberations of Patti’s polymath persona in herself. Growing up in Michigan, Jesse recalls picking out melodies on the family piano. She never took it seriously until she heard her music teacher play Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.” Soon she was taking lessons, and music was becoming increasingly important. But she never intended to become a musician, considering environmental science as a career. In a college essay, she acknowledged the difficulty of deciding. Then she received an acceptance letter that asked, “Why choose between music and science? Maybe you can find a way to combine them and do both?”

Jesse says that her mother never planned a music career, either. “I think she believed that as she was following a path to be an artist, poet and writer, it happened that way by chance and fate. Music became the common voice that allowed her to carry her thoughts in a broader way and to reach people in a more accessible manner.” Jesse acknowledges envying those who have one dominant capability that they master but concludes,

There are all different kinds of people, and finding your clear path and purpose sometimes includes following a lot of different paths, a lifelong pursuit of learning and ever expanding and growing. My mom has never stopped learning, expanding her mind and knowledge and following through with her creative endeavors and projects. She loves to be busy and loves to work and create. And that is very admirable.

When she was 16, Jesse collaborated with her mother on the album Trampin’:

…she wanted to do a version of the old gospel song where the title comes from. She had a vinyl of Marian Anderson singing it, accompanied by piano, but we didn’t have any sheet music. My piano teacher worked with me, transposing the vinyl to sheet music, working out a lovely arrangement for me to play. So our piano lessons for a while were focused on learning “Trampin'” in time to record it for my mom’s album. When I was ready to play it, we went to Looking Glass, Philip Glass’s recording studio in NYC, and played it for the first time together, and that first take is what is on the Trampin’ album. I’m not sure it was a take that my teacher would have been very proud of and maybe if we would have tried it a few more times it would have sounded better, but there is something very human and humble about going with that first take, especially since I was so young and it was a mother-daughter recording, our first meeting at the song after having our own journey with it.

Listen here and judge for yourself:

 

Jesse subsequently collaborated with other musicians in the Detroit and NYC areas and has been involved in many multimedia events, especially those in art galleries and museums. In particular, she has been working with Eric Hoegemeyer, a multifaceted musician, composer and engineer whom she met in Detroit and who eventually relocated to NYC, where Jesse now lives. She and Eric share Tree Laboratory, a studio in Brooklyn.

She considers the Patti Smith Band to be family, since she’s known the members all her life and feels she that she has learned so much about musicianship through watching and working with them. During her summers as a teenager, she was involved in behind-the-scenes aspects, learning about production, staging and touring. One summer, there was a change in the lineup. A keyboard player was needed, and she was asked to fill in. She still remembers the first song that she played with the group: “Pissing in a River.”

She describes working with her mother by saying, “She is a true performer, and it’s amazing to watch. The stage presence, confidence and energy she has is remarkable.” She credits her mother with helping her dive into new worlds.

She will do something like bring some poems, part of a book or stories or a letter to me, and we will talk about what is happening in it, what it sounds like, the mood of the different lines and parts of the text. And through looking at that and talking about it, write a piece of music that corresponds to it. Another way we will work is that I will write a piece of music and bring it to her and she will think of a piece of writing or look for something that she thinks fits with the music, and we will try it out. If it doesn’t quite fit, we will find another text that suits it better.

An annual event where Jesse and Patti present is a performance at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. They select an exhibit and create a musical program in response to the subject matter. Jesse also composes pieces, and her mother reads a variety of texts appropriate to the subject matter. In 2012, her tenth performance there, Patti paid tribute to Andy Warhol, her fellow traveler in the Seventies.

Jesse, Jackson and Patti Smith at Detroit Institute of Arts with Diego Rivera's fresco as a backdrop.

Jesse, Jackson and Patti Smith playing at the Detroit Institute of Arts with a Diego Rivera fresco as the backdrop. (Photo: Michelle Pesta Culkowski)

Jesse also performs with her brother Jackson, a Detroit-based guitarist. “When I play music with my brother and my mom, it feels even more like family. My brother is such a technically advanced and gifted musician, and when we all play together we just laugh and have fun.” She says the same about performing with Eric, who will join her and Patti in an upcoming Met performance this fall.

Making multigenerational music has worked well for Jesse:

My family and I, as well as Eric, have developed a rapport working and playing together, developing our language and collaboration skills. This has helped teach me to relax, breathe properly and find the right notes. It’s so wonderful to work with people who believe in you. Music helps you to develop in so many areas of your life. It helps you with your brain functions, with developing your creative mind and exploring different facets of the world, which leads you in all directions. Just like how on an instrument there are so many songs and pieces just waiting to be written and found. It’s the common language of the world. It is a pretty remarkable thing.

And what does Patti Smith herself feel about the future of her musical family? She says,

I feel very optimistic about our future, collectively and individually. We are all healthy, positive and diligent workers and have a loving and communicative relationship. Professionally, I believe we will continue to evolve. I look forward to recording and performing with both of them. The three of us together really magnify the memory of their father. Jesse and I are planning our own album. So, as Elvis Presley sang, “The future looks bright ahead.”

Note: For information about upcoming releases and events, check Patti Smith’s website. And keep an eye out for Jesse’s new site (jesseparissmith.com), which will go live soon.

 

Poetry and Music: Songs of Salcman

Music starts with sound and silence. As such, music and literature likely arose as a single entity. Even as the two drew apart, they maintained a continuum, causing Alphonse de Lamartine to state, “Music is the literature of the heart; it commences where speech ends.” And continued to influence one another in both form and content, causing Ezra Pound to pronounce, “Poets who will not study music are defective.” Be that as it may, literary figures as disparate as William ShakespeareTS Eliot and Ralph Ellison have made music an essential part of their works.

Join us in exploring this ageless theme and its contemporary variations through poetry, prose and the visual arts in preparation for our Summer 2013 Music issue.

Lorraine Whittlesey

Lorraine Whittlesey at the piano (Photo: John Dean)

A few words to set the stage, so to speak. Music has always been an integral part of my life. Family legend has it that I sang my first sentences to the popular tunes of the day. The combination of words and melodic line continues to be a powerful force in my life.

Poets and other writers engage audiences in ways that are personal to the individual listener. When Michael Salcman’s poetry came to my attention, thanks to our mutual friend Clarinda Harriss, I recognized that he was someone whose poems appealed to me for a variety of reasons. I noted his careful and obvious affection, passion and respect for his subject matter. His words, the cadence of his delivery and the images that they evoked engaged my entire person.

After a reading at Minás Gallery in Baltimore, I approached Michael and asked if he would consider allowing me to set some of his poems to music. He graciously agreed. Since I already had one of his collections of poetry, The Clock Made of Confetti, I re-read the poems, which always seemed to come alive and remind me, in a visual sense, of structured notation on a musical staff.

The poem that I selected from the book was “Einstein Sailing; A Photograph.” All things Einstein have always held special appeal for me. Einstein was an accomplished violinist and declared repeatedly that had he not been a physicist he would have been a musician. His statements about the power of music are legendary. Several years before this, I had written a musical adaptation of Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, and the prospect of using him as subject matter again was irresistible.

Not long after we had decided to move forward with our collaboration with the intent of a future performance, I received a wonderful surprise. Michael sent me a poem, “Song,” that he had written following that decision. That poem was the first of Michael’s that I set to music. When the composition was completed, I invited him and his wife Ilene to my house and performed it for them. His generous response and feedback convinced me that I was on the correct path and gave me the confidence to move forward.

Michael then sent me a copy of his new poetry collection, The Enemy of Good is Better. I devoted my time to reading each poem aloud as well as in silence. The poems for the performance were selected, and I knew that I had arrived at a crossroad. At that point, I felt that Michael’s input would be critical. I asked him to read the six poems aloud to me. I wanted to be as faithful as possible to his nuances and rhythms when composing the music. We sat in his kitchen. He read, I notated. The experience was invaluable.

Michael knew Henry Wong, the owner of An die Musik in Baltimore, and arranged to have our performance presented at that site. I was delighted as I had performed there a number of times and always appreciated the house piano, a marvelous instrument that was kept in good repair. The space itself was very intimate with comfortable seating, fine acoustics and sight lines.

We presented Songs of Salcman on April 28, 2012 to a full house. There were many poets in attendance as was befitting since April was National Poetry Month.

Publicity poster

Songs of Salcman publicity poster

Michael gave a gracious and generous introduction that addressed the history of the art song. He first read the poems, after which I performed them. The poet was relaxed, confident and poised. The musician was nervous and nursing a sore throat. The audience was appreciative and attentive. The pieces that we presented were as follows (click on the first item for the full text):

  • Einstein Sailing; A Photograph
  • A Song of Spirals
  • Baltimore Was Always Blue
  • Poem on a Single Word from Richard Serra’s Verb List
  • Everything But The Ashes
  • Song

In every collaboration there’s the possibility of ruffled feathers, miscommunication and myriad missteps that leave one or both parties wondering whether it was as good an idea as it seemed at the outset. My collaboration on Songs of Salcman left me exhilarated and appreciative of the freedom and trust that Michael provided throughout the process.

The first words of Michael’s opening remarks at the performance were, “The omens are good.” Indeed they are, and we are both looking forward to upcoming performances that will include new works for the Songs of Salcman art song cycle.

Online Editor’s Note: If the stars align, a selection of poems set to music, both old and new,  from Songs of Salcman will be presented this summer and autumn as part of an LPR program celebrating music and literature. (More on that later.) And if that’s too long to wait, stop by An die Musik at 8:00 pm this Friday, February 15  for Love: Error & Eros, a contemporary cabaret event with Dyana Neal and Lorraine.