Because both music and poetry are born of passion and strive to express the inexpressible, they unite quite naturally. Often it happens within the mind of a musician/poet who utilizes both art forms within a single expression. For me, one such artist is Terence Trent D’Arby, who has always been able to move me with his words as much as the tremble of his voice. At other times, it is a collective, interactive effort. But sometimes the components are created in separate quarters, coming together before an audience as a one-time experience. In these scenarios, the coming together usually happens with unconscious minimalism, each component a complement to the whole, no one piece overshadowing another.
It was in this format that Southwest School of Arts and Craft and Gemini Ink combined the art of poetry and song in an event called, “What Singing Completes Us, Jazz Settings of Poems by Li-Young Lee.” Within the serene womb of the campus’s cobblestone Coates Chapel, the philosophical, organic poetry of nationally-famed poet Li-Young Lee was interpreted by local jazz musicians Joël Dilley, Bett Butler, and poet Rosemary Catacalos.
Before the music was brought to the stage, Lee stood alone before us and shared some of his poems that have not yet been published, one of which he had written just that morning. He spoke of childhood, death, and love, describing lyric poetry as “the language of a prayer of a child before experience, and the sentence of an old person after experience.”
Lee is an American poet born in Indonesia to Chinese parents. He spent his early years traveling in exile with them through Asia before settling in the U.S. His childhood is particularly fascinating because he is the grandson of China’s first president and the son of a gangster father who had been a political prisoner and became a Christian minister.
Despite his broad, profound life experiences, Lee’s presence was gentle, unassuming, like a hymn. Lee’s musical speaking voice was sedative in its monotone breathiness, taking me into a meditative state of thoughtless awareness.
After Lee recited several poems, he sat and allowed his words and images to be brought forth in the keys and vocals of Butler, and the plucking of Dilley’s stand-up bass. Their poem-songs were sparse and beautiful, moving between subtle instrumentals, over which Catalacos enunciated Lee’s words, and more cheerful tunes in which Butler sang Lee’s words, occasionally breaking into a bridge of light-fingered scales commingling with a slow, melodic vocal scat.
In the opening song, “Build by Flying,” Butler sang headily while Dilley bowed the strings of his bass quietly and sporadically. The mood of the piece was both enticing and unsettling, leaving us wanting, wondering what else would come.
And with each poem-song that followed, the mood changed accordingly, though the atmosphere of poetic purpose was evident in each. While listening, eyes closed, to the jazz meanderings, I pondered the experience of the poet who hears one’s words put to music, to realize another’s interpretation of the poet’s intention. How often, I wondered, do the music and the words perfectly match? Or is the poem more often expanded, given new dimensions of meaning? During Dilley’s song of Lee’s poem “The Moon From Any Window,” I found myself dreaming, lucidly questioning my own perception of the poet’s intentions. As if answering my thoughts, Catacalos spoke Lee’s words: “The moon from any window is one part whoever’s looking.”
The most pleasing artistic union occurred when all three members of the trio contributed all they had to offer. Butler vocalized a wordless rhythm between the poem lines spoken by Catacalos and the instrumental verses of the keyboard and bass. Everything came together in one effort, a sharing of art, a gift of expression.
It was in this state of artistic union that the final line of Lee’s poem, “Praise Them,” offered the greatest meaning. In reference to birdsong, he wrote: “If even one of our violent number could be gentle long enough that one of them `birds` found it safe inside our finally untroubled and untroubling gaze, who wouldn’t hear what singing completes us?”