Manafonistas JUNE 22, 2011 - by Michael Engelbrecht


An interview with Rick Holland about his poems and the collaboration with Brian Eno on Drums Between The Bells.


Michael Engelbrecht: On a lot of his albums, Brian only rarely works with clearly defined lyrics when entering a studio. This time, he had your poems - and, as I imagine, letting their impact on him work, he was inspired to approach every track with new ideas, new sounds. You have only a rare apparition as one of the nine voices on the album; how have you been involved in the studio work? Did you offer him any musical ideas, from the point of view of a "real" non-musician?

Rick Holland: You are right that each track was approached as a unique organism, and there were nearly fifty pieces when we first sat down to finish the record. I do offer musical ideas and also extremely vague and over-reaching requests, Can you make this part sound more like primordial sludge Brian?', that kind of thing. Of course his answers tend to be, "Yes, yes I can.".

We worked together in his studio throughout the intensive final weeks and also at most of the sessions that spawned the initial 'skeletons' of the tracks over the years. I think we both took some steps away from our comfort zones over these sessions, which is what collaborating relies on, and there was certainly never a sense that he "did" music and I "did" words. Poems and Music were equally likely to change in the process of making, and the making process was an open forum of ideas.

The Real is perhaps the most recent example of a school of song formation whereby Brian would have several pieces on the go and I would provide or write words for the ones that most spoke to me. The first stage in these tracks was to superimpose a vocal over the existing music. Sometimes, a vocal just steers the piece towards its final shape and many musical ideas were provided by the vocalists, not directly, but in the nuances of their readings and more specifically their own ways of forming spoken words.

The components of this one just fell into place with a combination of reshaping an existing poem I had been working on, and the beautiful chance arrival at the studio of Elisha Mudley, who really did appear like an angel that day, unannounced, and just in time for us to record. Not all days ran that smoothly!

Michael: Your poems allow the listener to drift freely between the impressions the single words and pictures are offering. As a material that is not fixed to transport a certain message, and more open to free associations, one can experience the words in a very relaxed way. Can you explain this a bit, with a look at the opening track, this London poem Bless This Space. And what was the first idea that brought this poem on its way? The albums starts, almost programmatic, with the words "Bless this space / in rhyme and sound..."


Rick: This is a very good question. The great interest for me in the whole of this process has been the giving up of control of meaning. Many poets would really not like this idea. By allowing the idiosyncrasies of accent and word formation in foreign English speakers the centre stage, and then enjoying and exploiting the accidents of meaning those sounds can create, the poetic process is often greatly enhanced, and often in surprising ways. I was already a poet who enjoyed leaving "image lines" and indeed sounds to trigger a journey into personal meaning before I met Brian, but over the years of working with him, I have developed a clearer idea of the middle ground between pure audio material and carriers of meaning and how the two can play off each other.

The example you cite Bless This Space is an interesting one, as it is not typical of how we worked. The poem was inspired by a production job of sorts I had for the Map-Making project in 2003 (the event I met Brian at actually). It was a very ambitious collaboration between artists of all kinds, from ballet dancers to painters to orchestras; I was unofficially tasked with pulling the show together with some kind of thread. It was set in St Luke's, in what used to be a church near Old Street in London but is now the home of LSO and a beautiful music venue. I was asked to write something to accompany the dance piece that opened the show, and so I decided to play on the idea of the art venue being a place for people to come and "unfold" the daily pretences of life. The rhythm and feel of it was ritualistic in keeping with the motions of the dance and for me it made a good opening "blessing" for the performance to come, like a call to the audience for an open mind, or a mock invocation of the spirits.

I included it in a bundle of words I once printed out for Brian and forgot all about it, until one day I received an email from Brian with his reading over a pulse track. I liked it, but again we forgot it for a long time, and then it re-emerged in this form after Leo Abrahams and Seb Rochford had worked their magic; Leo's guitar part and Seb's drums knock it off kilter and add even more a sense of the intoxicating freedom after the ritual, as though you are marched to the precipice and have no choice but to jump into the unknown. Now it is a piece of music which as you say can be linked into lyrically, or just grooved to, or both. Hopefully, lines jump out differently for different people. And it keeps the half life of that original poem but adds a new life, or several new lives at once to it. For me, "step through mediums / outside of the race / to look in" works on many levels for individuals and society. I love this track.


Michael: On Glitch, as on many other poems, you're working with the freedoms of Konkrete Poesie (Gomringer, Arp, Jandl a.o.) by using the whole space, letting go traditional forms of arranging words. The graphic space between the words (white canvas) produces an airy climate for the words, sometimes even a kind of rhythmical pattern. Can you describe the story behind the writing of Glitch, and how Brian's music did surprise you?

Rick: Before meeting Brian I had set out on writing directly to music, and in ways that were inspired directly by music; in fact I had been experimenting with writing as a direct translation of other forms of expression, of which music is for me the most direct and enjoyable. Glitch was written a long time ago, but I think it was written only in relation to a very sparse drum pattern that I had asked a friend to make for me and without much editing for meaning. This perhaps explains the context you give it and why it worked so well in relation to the graphic space you mention. The space was perhaps already there, a la Konkrete Poesie but it was certainly consciously manipulated in Brian's transformation to music. Brian is forever asking readers to "go slow" for precisely this reason. I don't have much knowledge about Konkrete Poesie so I will investigate, thank you.

So, Glitch started from the words, and Grazna Goworek (who looked after Brian's studio some years ago) was invited to read. She didn't even bat an eyelid when he asked her to go and sit in the toilet to read the poem, which is where the rasping atmosphere of the reading comes from, along with Brian's processing of her voice. Then the music was built from these starting points, the words and the voice became a pulse and an atmosphere, so actually the music did not surprise me in this case.

However, we returned to Glitch several times over the years, and the greatest surprise came in the very last week of working on the record. In response to one of my more outlandish requests (something like "Could you make a section that sounds like the sub-atomic code of the universe?") Brian constructed the freak-out section that I think now takes the track to the next level. That part is the real language of the piece for me, condensed and magnified like a real poem should be. It speaks in greater volumes than all of the words!


Michael: One of the beautiful moments in Dreambirds is when the words say "invent new colors", and the music sounds like a perfect example for synasthesia, the transformation of colours into music. In the lyrics there are two interesting elements that produce a kind of tension: the dreamy skyscape with the birds, and then, the political allusions... a kind of "utopian poem", so to speak?

Rick: Yes absolutely in the synesthesia sense. We experimented with various ways of representing words with sound, and in this case I agree, the elements hang together like a visual trace across the sky. The politics are also there, and they are a strange mixture. Having worked as a teacher in various guises, in London and further afield in Central Africa and India, the untrammelled potential of youthful imagination is always inspiring to me. It is also violated by the facts of life so often, when the young person's perspective is very often the right one but is denied.

The financial crisis most recently points to this fact so I'll use it as a slightly cumbersome example; while I was growing up in a country of people doing jobs that I couldn't really understand I always sensed very strongly that our economic foundations were built on make believe, but I would dampen these impressions and assume there was someone who was far more intelligent than me in control. In the Blair years, the promises of equal opportunities for all youngsters to learn and aspire made me feel equally uneasy. We were rich as a nation, but no-one really understood or even bothered to understand why this was, and we had a government rolling out initiatives that always sounded as flimsy as the new labour theme tune to me.

What was clear is that back in the real world we needed truly brilliant young rather than political spin versions of brilliant young who weren't really prepared for anything useful by this aspirational lie of an education. So Dreambirds was a poem about the tussle between the true potential of imagination, and the mirage that was being sold that let everyone express themselves and have the impression that they were on the ladder to somewhere better when perhaps they weren't at all (a blank dioxide perhaps).

Thankfully, the beautiful musical accompaniment allows the imagination to roam and doesn't focus instead on that satirical edge, and ultimately in the poem and in the music, it is the imagination that wins! We do need brilliant young inventing new colours that fly, and they are out there working very hard at it, right now. When I listen to this one now, I imagine wonderfully odd semi-robotic species of bird full of character and colour. This piece makes me smile, as though we live in a very complex world that is still full of charm.

Michael: Seedpods is a good example for your preference (sometimes) to use very sensual, microscopic details of everyday life and then build up a kind of impressionistic picture...does this poem in some way reflect your interest in a free, unconditioned way of perceiving things that can produce magic without being linked to a certain message?

Rick: "Yes" is the best answer to this question. I can't express this better than you have! I will add that I have a belief that the internal world and the external world can both be understood far better by just looking; looking carefully at them both in the context of the other. "Looking" itself needs examining and re-evaluating too. Relationship (like that of the very large to the very small) is everywhere in this album, and in my work in general. I also recognise lately that so much of what we experience as "feeling" is just projected, and from the top of the 344 bus in London (where I wrote this one) it is possible to see "seven different feelings" responding in their "seven" different ways to the same trigger at any given moment. Only a conditioned mind fails to see this every day in London.


Michael: One of my favourite poems and tracks (in fact, they are nearly all favourite pieces) is The Real, a fine example of producing mistrust about so-called "reality". By repeating some of the words and changing them subtly, the listener's security is more and more feeling like a fake. Could be a Buddhist poem for the Western world, couldn't it? And Brian enhances this by heavily treating the voice in the last part of the long track...

Rick: This is one of my favourite tracks too. An undressing of the myths of language, and because of Brian's wonderful idea of stretching and elongating the repeat, an undressing of the very myth of speaking (and telling "facts") too, it is an opportunity to meditate on your own understandings.

Living in Mumbai for a while really opened my eyes to the fact that these ideas are not new or strange, and are also not "hippy" (or any other similarly Western kind of identifying word to discredit anything "other"). In India I found a society that was able to talk about things not from a self conscious position of quasi-scientific authority but from an open position of questioning and critical thinking built into the fabric of daily life by an ancient tradition of such thinking. Exact classification was not the stated end of this thinking, unlike the West, rather an acknowledgement that giant forces of the world and universe were in flux, and that human beings played only a small and equal part to all other forms of life.

I am not Buddhist, or a Hindu, nor have I studied either way exhaustively, but I do see the frontiers of science shifting all the time and making fools of experts, and the fact that people have also long agreed on one simple truth, "the unexamined life is not worth living". At the ends of our formalised intelligence lives imagination. Ultimately, we are all looking for the same thing and anyone who tells you "no, you are wrong, life is rigidly this way, full stop" is almost certainly selling you something.


Michael: Who is The Airman... Where does this title hint to? A space traveler? Quite often in your poems you're writing about stuff from a kind of outsider perspective. A kind of alien perspective... Another good example is the poem A Title that offers some excursion to evolution theory...

Rick: The airman is a representation of my own attempts at thinking logically through smaller and smaller building blocks of life in an attempt to understand it. Like deep sea divers and space explorers, we are still searching our own consciousness and wondering where it can take us; often it is our ability to travel further away from ourselves that allows us to better understand ourselves. The actual idea of The Airman I am almost certain was taken from Auden or the "pylon poets" of the 1930s, and really is just about jumping on the back of technological advance to steal a clear view of its secrets like a magpie (Auden's airman I think was a First World War pilot scanning the earth to make maps). A Title is similar, as we get closer to understanding ourselves through a meditation through a microscope, or appreciating our true nature beneath all the constructs.

Michael: Sounds Alien has, from the lyrics, clear musical references, like "sounds are alien and dense...". Did you write this or other poems with the idea in the back of your mind that Brian will make the music?

Rick: Sounds Alien came from a collection of consciously shorter work that I was writing at the time it was made (I think around 2006) and almost certainly these shorter poems were influenced by the fact I was working with Brian and other musicians and with music in mind. The rhythm of these words certainly lend themselves to manipulation or repetition (very much in the vein of what Tagore said to Einstein about Eastern music with its words that were not necessarily anything other than structural stepping stones in a greater and more vivid picture)

These words also relate to a long term love of drum and bass music, with the ability it had to take me out of my own thoughts through its broken beat repetitions and alterations. It is worth mentioning here that I think it was listening to music with live MCs and rappers that first made me interested in poetry, I have always loved hearing a voice adding its layers to music, and in the rare instances that the images are vivid too, that is my musical heaven.

I do draw a great deal of fuel from music and drums, as a writer but also just as a stress reliever in day to day life. If I remember correctly Brian picked these words from the group of short poems I brought to one of our sessions and read them with Aylie over an existing piece. We made this track in the same session as Multimedia and The Airman (which were written with the words as starting points).


Michael: And then there is this wonderful poem - and the wonderful song Cloud 4. For someone who likes Brian singing it's a bit sad that it is so short, but the form is perfect. Do you have a relationship to his song albums... have you been a fan of Brian's music before you met him personally. I mean he had written great song lyrics in his song albums, and then there is the ambient work full of strange moods that might inspire the writing of poems with the music running in the background, So what's your story with Brian's music?

Rick: I grew up with Brian's music forming part of the background of my life without realising it. A lot of people of my generation can say that. I didn't have a direct experience of or knowledge of Brian's music until I met him. It is lucky really, because I had no preconception of working with him, and so no reference to either influence me or intimidate me. I have learned so much from him and have been really interested to discover his work after meeting the man, rather than the other way round. I have to admit that it was a good few years even after working with him that I really grasped his attitude to lyrics. Maybe I wouldn't have gone that first day if I had known what I was letting myself in for! I did actually have a crack at writing words for a lot of the songs that came out very differently in his previous two song albums, including the lovely Strange Overtones.

I love his song This incidentally and I think that is a good example of his approach to lyric writing as I can imagine the words came in streams and in servitude to the music. I've also heard some unreleased songs that are just stunning and perhaps lyrically incomplete. Perhaps my story with Brian's music is that of the covert secret operative who has had access to the vaults. My relationship to all of his work, across art forms, is one of ongoing illumination. Most recently I've read about Stafford Beer and loved those parts of his work I could understand, and while I still perhaps know less of Brian's song albums than some do, I have certainly heard him sing a lot.

A quick aside, regarding the length of Cloud 4. The option of continuing with it and building it did come up, but we both thought it delivered its message. As an aside to an aside, I remember also Brian saying that one of his favourite songs ever, Maurice Williams' Stay, was the perfect song encapsulated in a minute and thirty-nine seconds. I certainly know what that song is saying!


Michael: Starting reading a poem with the title Multimedia I didn't expect some strange archaic rituals? What triggered this fantasy of caves and elemental sounds...?

Rick: Aboriginal spot paintings, Australia, fire, music, "click sticks" and also the archaic rituals that are carried out in techno parties all over the world or anywhere where people dance to drums. A lot of us find release in dancing to loud beats (expertly so in Germany). I wrote this at a time where a lot of self conscious multimedia art was around and it made me think that mixing art, dancing, music and ecstatic energy was nearly as old as the most ancient human practices and not perhaps as clever as smug artists were implying (in the Dreambirds years!). I had also seen an Aboriginal man on walkabout in central Sydney which was a contrast that had a great impact on me in a country whose real history fascinated me, with it's stories of totemic beings singing the world into existence and naming the land. The very common need for release is the thing that triggered the fantasy, projected onto an outback scene from the other side of the world. It is a poem that is proudly from my youth, when the political climate and behaviour of a lot of my peers seemed a million miles removed from what I thought was real.

Michael: Did Brian tell you why he decided to sing the last track of the album with an utterly deep voice. The silence before it is well-chosen after the poem that ended with pure optimism and the words "things will be good". The change of mood makes the silent period nearly necessary, and, what seemed to be a happy ending of the album turns into something dark. Can you give some suggestions about your perception of this last track?

Rick: I am going to take some credit here for pushing Brian to do something he wasn't necessarily comfortable doing. We were in a new part of his studio, he had moved all of his equipment into what had previously been an office, with large glass skylight windows. The rain was hammering down in heavy drops, the daylight had disappeared behind the clouds, and he had this dark and thrilling sound on the go. In short, the stage was set to try Breath Of Crows, a slow meditation that is both dark and uplifting in my opinion. His choice of singing voice fitted the whole atmosphere, and I pushed him to carry on with this sung approach. I think he enjoyed confounding his own doubts, and I love this track. The silence was completely necessary, yes, and the atmosphere too different from the rest of the album to place anywhere else.

As for my perception it is completely bound up in where the poem was written, which was under a Mumbai monsoon, in my small room over there, which was at tree level and meant I lived in close proximity to the city's crow population. It was the culmination of a lot of reading, thinking, working as a teacher at Utpal Shanghvi School, and living closely with these very intelligent animals in a culture that revered and took notice of all living things. The song is perhaps like a non religious hymn.

Michael: Anything you'd like to add? At the end...

Rick: I would just like to add that working with Brian enabled me for the first time to watch a full time artist at work; someone as committed to his work as a research scientist and constantly pushing himself and his ideas and modes of thinking. While the working process necessitated give and take I never once felt anything other than his complete equal and this is down to his total commitment to remaining open and curious to the world. I am proud of the album and the journey we have taken to realise it, but most of all I am just very grateful to have been given the opportunity to meet him and work with him. I hope you enjoy the record, and give it some good quality time to listen to (perhaps on shuffle mode for best effect).