10th Anniversary: Poetry and music songs of Salcman

This essay was originally published on February 13, 2013. It is being re-shared in support of LPR’s 10th Anniversary celebration.

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.

 NOTE: If you enjoyed this essay, please check out LPR’s Issue 14: Music.  https://littlepatuxentreview.org/issues/14-summer-2013/

10th Anniversary: My two heads

This essay was originally published on May 22, 2013. It is being re-shared in support of LPR’s 10th Anniversary celebration.

Linda Joy Burke, Artscape, Baltimore, MD

Linda Joy Burke, Artscape, Baltimore, MD
(Photo: Dianne Connelly)

My first memory of a structured music environment comes from the fourth grade at Nativity, a Catholic school in Washington, D.C. The overexuberant nun insisted that we bend our thumbs at a ninety-degree angle, open our mouths, and stick the top of the crook between our lips so that they would form an oval. That was how we were supposed to sing the hymns and old Americana songs such as “Oh Shenandoah” that we were taught. It felt like torture to me, and I discovered early on that I often did it wrong. Even when I managed to get it right, I still could not carry a tune.

 

NOTE: If you enjoyed this essay, please check out LPR’s Issue 14: Music.  https://littlepatuxentreview.org/issues/14-summer-2013/

10th Anniversary: Music and the narrative brain

This essay was originally published on November 13, 2014. It is being re-shared in support of LPR’s 10th Anniversary celebration.

Movies and operas are not the only narratives scored with music today. As it becomes increasingly rare to spot commuters free of earbuds in subway cars or on the street, it is clear that music is becoming incidental to nearly every scene in our own daily narratives.

I recently rediscovered the soundtrack of a video game that I played extensively as a child. The songs transported me to feelings so foreign to me over a decade later that it took me several days of listening to begin to understand and relate to my eight-year-old self. Some of the feelings I still don’t understand after months of periodically revisiting the music. This brought on more music-assisted reminiscence of times spanning from the mid-90s to the summer of 2012. 

NOTE: If you enjoyed this essay, please check out LPR’s Issue 14: Music. https://littlepatuxentreview.org/issues/14-summer-2013/

10th Anniversary: Multigenerational Music: Jesse Paris Smith and Patti Smith

This essay was originally published on May 13, 2014. It is being re-shared in support of LPR’s 10th Anniversary celebration.

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. 

 

NOTE: If you enjoyed this essay, please check out LPR’s Issue 14: Music.  https://littlepatuxentreview.org/issues/14-summer-2013/

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.

 

Music and the Narrative Brain

Movies and operas are not the only narratives scored with music today. As it becomes increasingly rare to spot commuters free of earbuds in subway cars or on the street, it is clear that music is becoming incidental to nearly every scene in our own daily narratives.

I recently rediscovered the soundtrack of a video game that I played extensively as a child. The songs transported me to feelings so foreign to me over a decade later that it took me several days of listening to begin to understand and relate to my eight-year-old self. Some of the feelings I still don’t understand after months of periodically revisiting the music. This brought on more music-assisted reminiscence of times spanning from the mid-90s to the summer of 2012.

What was so striking to me during this exercise was that the songs evoked such a visceral and involuntary reaction. In the same way that one might hear a song carry on in one’s mind even after the sound has ceased, it seems like I had developed a Pavlovian response to these songs in relation to my own past. However, by reviving this neural circuitry in the context of a brain very different from my brain at eight, the music also seems to have taken on a transformative role. Outside of their natural context of my everyday life, these feelings are more myth than memory, the music elevating them from events to narrative. The music forces the recall, the reexamination, the recontextualization of an abstraction. To me it smacks of the activity one must undergo to write a story about an event or person that may now only be a shade.

What gives music this strange power to develop narrative? Is there something narrative in the nature of music, or is there a special state that the brain must be in to create that sense of narrative? Perhaps a certain chemistry is required that can only be brought on by duress or joy. Dan Levitin, a neuroscientist and musician, in his book This Is Your Brain On Music has documented how individuals and cultures make use of music in ways similar to drugs, inducing various chemical states in the brain.  Meanwhile Josef Rauschecker, another neuroscientist, found that the portions of the brain associated with motor function are also associated with the memorization and recall of music—a sort of musical muscle memory.

I am no neuroscientist, but perhaps whatever phenomenon I’m pursuing lies at the intersection of these findings. Aaron Copland recognized the growing importance of music in the film industry by adding a chapter to his revised edition of What to Listen For in Music. He would surely relish our position today, when narrative and music are expanding into continuously evolving and increasingly accessible forms of media, and we are better poised than ever before to understand how they act on us.

A Collaboration With The Audience: Gerry LaFemina on Music and Poetry

One of the intersections of music and literature that we have explored is the parallels and distinctions between songwriting and crafting both prose and poetry. While Don Biggar drew our attention to the parallels in structure between his songs and his wife Lisa’s stories, Truth Thomas brought our attention to the contrasts between a poet’s solitary efforts and the collaborative musical ensemble. This week Gerry LaFemina, poet and punk rocker whose “Sunday Girl” appeared in our Music issue and whose music can be found in the media player on the sidebar of this site, extends the ongoing discussion to the collaboration between performer and audience. Without further obstruction, Gerry LaFemina:

Gerry LaFemina. (Photo: gerrylafemina.net)

Gerry LaFemina. (Photo: gerrylafemina.net)

First and foremost, I’m a writer, primarily a poet. I spend many hours trying to decide which word is the best word, which order is the best order. And in that space it’s up to me to make those choices. I read the poems aloud, usually at home but sometimes when I’m out, too, which prompts looks from strangers at nearby tables. I tweak words all the time. In all the poems I read regularly at public events, there are changes penned into the books.

And even though there are people whose opinion I trust about what’s going on in my work, even writers I admire and like, people who have the best interest of my poems and fictions in their minds when they approach my work, even then, it’s still up to me to make the decisions. I can agree or disagree with any opinion.

That said, when I’m in the band basement, with the Fender Jaguar hanging from my shoulder and working on a new song with The Downstrokes it’s a completely different process. There, with my fellow song writer Mike Holland as well as our drummer William Poorbaugh and bassist Jamie Lockard, I’m not just writing something that represents me to the audience (as a poem does) but trying to come up with something that represents us–the vision we have for this band. Whether lyrically or musically, it’s a collaboration, and as such I’m focused on who we are: four guys in our forties playing (punk) rock & roll.

And then there are all the strictures of writing what is essentially pop music: a hook, a chorus, a melody, something that can be sung along to.

It’s not unusual for Mike and me to struggle for the right chord or for me to ask him to play a riff over and over until I have a melody, a set of words–invoked in part by the chords and notes and tempo he’s playing. Nor is it unusual for Bill to suggest a tempo change, Jamie to suggest a variation on the progression, or me to suggest we go high instead of low. I find it refreshing, this give and take.

Perhaps this has to do with the fact that, ultimately, the song writing process is not just collaborative with the other band members; it’s also a collaboration with the audience. When we’re on stage and I’m singing and playing, the audience is there–they’re real, they’re listening to us, and (I hope) they’re responding. Which is to say that, when people in the audience left our first gig singing the chorus of “Punk Rock Lolita,” I had the verification of success that I rarely have as a poet: someone remembered the combined efforts of the songwriters and it was lodged in their heads.

Rarely has this happened at a poetry reading, and when it does, when someone comes up to me and says “When you read those lines . . .” and they can quote a few lines of a poem, I feel a kind of success that far trumps most acceptance letters. I feel the same way when someone takes the time to write me an email about a poem of mine they read.

Poetry writing, fiction writing, they are different from song writing in ways both obvious and subtle. I like to think the relationship between the artists and their audiences in songwriting (at least when the song writer is also the performer) is the key difference. I know when a song is working almost immediately because the audience lets me know ASAP. As a literary writer, it may take years of rejection letters about a particular piece before I give it up. That’s the real challenge of the artist going it alone as a writer. You have to decide yourself when to give a piece up. The band, they’ll let me know something isn’t working almost right away.

A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, LaFemina holds an MFA in poetry from Western Michigan University as well as an MA in literature with an emphasis on twentieth-century literature from WMU. He has taught at Nazareth College, Kirtland Community College, West Virginia University, Wheeling Jesuit University, and Sarah Lawrence College. He directs the Frostburg Center for Creative Writing at Frostburg State University, where he is an associate professor of English.