Pennyblack Music JULY 20, 2011 - by Lisa Torem


Talking Heads, Coldplay, U2, David Bowie - and Rick Holland?

You might wonder how a prolific poet wound up collaborating with "non-musician" Brian Eno - but, when you acknowledge that both are accomplished artists in their respective disciplines and, that Holland is to the spoken word what Noam Chomsky was to the field of linguistics you get the picture.

Both Holland and Eno are great believers in stretching the envelope; their exploratory natures combined create a palpable synergy. In fact, maybe these two "non-musicians", who have so much to say, singularly, find simultaneous solace in the spaces between the melodies and percussive thrashings, which appear on their recent collaboration.

To that end, on Drums Between The Bells, Eno's second record on the Warp Label for which Holland has provided the lyrics, there is even a piece entitled Silence that addresses that concept.

Holland's command and passion for prose, be it classical or contemporary, juxtaposes Eno's often-complex compositions with humour. When Eno's instrumental motifs repeat, perhaps to the uninitiated ear, formlessly, Holland, like Spiderman, attaches his focused feelers to the sonic wall, adding precision.

In 2010, Eno's album, Small Craft On A Milk Sea broke new ground in the realm of electronic music, but, with Holland's input, and this new release, the voice becomes the focal point; not just as a sterile, popularised instrument, but as a canvas for limitless textures.

Furthermore the nuance of non-native speaking coupled with Eno's alluring sound bytes and glitchy melodies, will probably force us to question the structure of traditional music and, whether we internalize what we hear or not, those compositions may encourage dialogue - and, isn't that what art is all about?

Two decades ago, the poet and the conceptualist met at the Map-Making project. They began creating compositions together in 2003, then meeting, periodically, to brainstorm once again, but their efforts did not culminate in a recording project until now.

This time, when Eno stretches that miasmic envelope, Holland snaps it right back. Rick Holland demystifies that process further with Pennyblack Music.

PB: Brian Eno suggests that he is interested in "music with speech rather than song." He references The Shangri-La's Leader Of The Pack, hip hop poetry and "sprechstimme" (speech song). How do you see your poetry fitting into that idiom?

RH: In the terms of that idiom I see poetry as a "musical speech". I think there is a music of some kind within the best poetry, whatever form it takes, however minimal or complex, its patterns. It helps to think of poems as being made up essentially of individual noises as well as words with loose meanings.

Poetry of all kinds has lineage to a spoken tradition that relied on being memorable in order to be easily learned and passed on. Even though we now have very strict distinctions of what is and isn't poetry, as spoken and now written traditions have developed, the basic characteristics have never changed. It is a condensed meaning within memorable language in a tradition that began life as story telling. This definition covers those strange influences Brian mentions, and much more besides.

The short image phrases and ideas of the poetry in this album make a good vocabulary for an experimenter seeking to manipulate the sounds and meanings within music. That is, not just in the words, themselves, but what plays off of them. In some cases (as in Fierce Aisles Of Light or Seedpods), I started to write differently with this project in mind, in the knowledge that 'gaps' could be filled by the effects of music and the listening mind.

It is first and foremost - a musical project.

This is why the project is so exciting for me still. It is another axis on which to let poems run, sometimes denying meaning that the words would have on the page, but sometimes singing out new meanings that exist somewhere between words, voice and music. The best hip-hop throws up new secrets with every listen. In a different way, I think this does too.

PB: You and Brian first met at an event sponsored by the collaborative Map-making Project. What was your contribution to this project and how did that first meeting take place?

RH: The Map-Making event in 2003 was one of a series of collaborations between artists of all kinds, involving dancers, video artists, orchestras and set up and run by Dan Fern and Sean Gregory, two champions of collaborative working in young artists. I was very lucky to have met some great friends, (now brilliant 'wwmusic' musicians, Old Man Diode and Wayne Eagle) who were music students in London, and I was introduced to a wide circle of musicians as well. The show was set in LSO St Luke's, which used to be a church near Old Street in London but is now a beautiful music venue.

I was asked to produce the show unofficially, writing in a narrative thread to link the disparate parts together, including a ritualised 'blessing' sequence with dancers to open the show that, by a haywire route over the years, resurfaced to become Bless This Space on the album. Part of the show was also an improvised orchestral piece with my poetry read over the top, a piece called One Brain City.

Brian liked what he heard and saw and asked to meet me afterwards, so we met briefly in the audience after the show. I woke up the next day and found Brian Eno's name and telephone number on a piece of paper in my pocket.

PB: Brian has stated in an essay for Warp Records that he wanted to work with individuals who had strong vocal personalities. He was particularly attracted to people who speak English as a second language and the way in which they voiced the sounds. He goes on to say that he hopes this record will enable people to view poetry in a new way. Do you relate to how Brian feels about the voices of people who perform poetry? Is the voice as important as the text?

RH: I relate to it certainly, as it was a theme or a condition he returned to very often over the years, and, much like the first question, we both approach words with a form of music in mind. Once it is established that the loose 'manifesto' of the project is to experiment with the sounds of words and manipulate them towards 'music', the use of non-native speakers makes perfect sense, with the very different bank of noises they employ in forming English words.

In this context, yes, voice can be as important as text, because voice, text, music and silence all contribute to an overall impact, as does how the listener behaves. It is all-important, or as important as you choose to make any part of it.

I would suggest that the process would be more hit and miss if you asked people to speak words randomly and took the same approach hoping to achieve results that remained interesting for more than one listen, but I am certain some wonderful sonic results would emerge from that approach too with enough time invested.

'Poem' really just means 'to make', so I wouldn't differentiate from a piece made like this and one thought through as a written poem, however much that appals critics. I think the voice can send the 'text' to another dimension (Elisha Mudley saying 'exact' with the stressed 'c' like an extra syllable; that detail makes The Real for me), and the 'text' can also play back in that same relationship, and subsume or elevate the voice.

People have been thinking about poetry and music for as long as that kind of public discussion has occurred. When Brian says, "think about it in a new way", I think he means releasing the tight grip of the more insular vision of 'poetry' as purely linguistic refinement and opening up to other possibilities without fear of label. People out there are already doing it as they have been doing for far longer than we have been around, but now we have new technology to help us.

PB: Brian was impressed by a trip to Sao Paulo and took photographs, which he synched up with the music. Did you find that adding poetry to a piece which had already been fused with visuals challenged your role as a poet?

RH: The visuals all happened after the project, during the stage in which we were trying to come up with an effective running order for the album. Brian manipulated the images while listening to the album on 'shuffle' mode late at night in his studio. The tracks spawned the visuals, not vice versa.

Writing as a response to visual art is a great exercise, though, as is writing in response to (rather than 'for') music; they are both particularly good for teaching children about creative writing. Hopefully anyone listening to the album will have their own strong responses to express as Brian did with those vivid images.

PB: Brian also has said that instrumentalists build a rapport with their instruments. How does this philosophy apply to the poet when the poet cannot separate physically from his instrument?

RH: That sounds like an interesting Eno-ism, I recall him talking once about drummers and their place 'on the beat' which is hugely subjective and varies widely from drummer to drummer and this struck a chord with me, in terms of my own relation to internal rhythm when I write, much of which is instinctive.

I have also seen a progression in which musicians treat the technological filters through which they pass the signals made with their instrument as part of the instrument itself. I can do this, too, by passing my words on to non-native English speakers and to friends like Brian.

The poet's instrument is his vocabulary, I suppose. I happen to think that it is entirely possible to separate from your own vocabulary in short bursts. Sometimes it is best achieved by not calling yourself a poet any more and heading out into the world to be something else for a while.

Putting your vocabulary and reference bank into an alien environment involves a certain amount of physical separation, or at least, a loosening of ties. In this analogy I would say that the rapport building is all about giving the instrument some space to grow, and not being too precious about owning it, while you spend time watching, listening and learning. That said, once you are back 'poeting' again, it is important to be ready by practicing and exploring that vocabulary so the instrument stays tuned.

PB: Brian considers himself a "non-musician" and a proponent of generative music; music that is limitless. Poetry to many people appears to be finite. Do you agree or disagree?

RH: I think for poetry to be finite language would have to be finite, and for language to be finite we would all have had to have found the exact building blocks of our existence. While the search continues, the possibilities continue to be endless.

Poetry can only appear finite when conditions are imposed on it, which make it appear finite, and I am not sure what the authority is that could make those rules.

The 'poetry' that writers can get so precious about isn't necessarily living in what we are taught to look for in poetry; it is other than that, sometimes called into being by effects, but never just contained in the effects, themselves.

It involves whatever network it appears on (music and permutations of voice included) and, in my opinion, it can appear in any network you could care to imagine, like the weirdest of sciences, which must be limitless to our understanding for us still to be exploring them. The 'poetry' is in the ongoing making with any vocabulary, or as someone more qualified than me once said, "poetry makes nothing happen."

I have been very interested in trying to imagine Brian's generative ideas in terms of words. The best I have done so far was in an essay that started like this, "What no poet wants to admit, but most suspect to be true, is that the art is a construction that could be mathematically formalised by a complex enough equation. What he comforts himself with perhaps, and remains excited by certainly, is the fact that, like the numbers, the possibilities remain endless."

PB: For some people, the human voice is unique because it can convey emotion. Yet here the voice is fuelled by mechanics. Can you explain whether people will be puzzled by this?

RH: We are all already used to marketing voices conveying plastic formed emotion, and speaker phone voices, and football chants, so we are pretty sophisticated listeners. The occasional mechanical tone can serve to take the focus off the 'I' of the voice and instead suggest a 'we'. Brian loves to explore the possibilities of the human voice within his music, and as a 'minimal' artist of sorts, it is natural for him to paint new patterns with material that may be more familiarly used in a different way. All of those explanations may be puzzling!

I like thinking of the human voice as frequencies akin to a whale or a dolphin, which are mechanised and wonderful at once, and, if I had had my way entirely, a couple of the tracks that we abandoned, that were heading in a route a little like electronic whale chatter, would have lasted the course; maybe on the next record.

PB: Here are metaphors used in the album; "the groans of pipe" and "the earth is dust." How did you come up with these images? What makes you see beyond the ordinary?

RH: Sound is often what I return to when I am trying to reduce the world to its most fundamental character. Similarly, with the image of dust, it evokes in me a sense of the world, as it exists beyond our limited perceptions of it. We connect to that reality rarely, and, in the case of the "the earth is dust" by slapping our feet against the ground in dance, which brings on in us human beings an ecstasy that we varyingly describe in ritual, animism, shamanism, mind alteredness, singing and fighting, depending on cultural or personal preference.

I come up with images by trying to interpret the world in the way that feels most instinctively right for me. I don't know if I see beyond the ordinary more or less than the next person, but I do express honestly what my ordinary is; very often it is searching for relationships between the very small and the very large, and connections between human beings.

PB: Dow discusses the stock exchange; a high-stakes, pressure cooker environment. The piece, however, makes it comprehensible to a lay person. Was that the point? Was it meant to be a "light" piece?

RH: We had fun making that one. It spawned its own dance late one night in the studio, which I wish I had video footage of (I may have to check my old mobile phone in fact).

It plays with the idea of financial Meta language as something impossible to properly engage with without training and, as something that can be laughed at, rather than intimidated by. From the position of us lay people who imagine real things with real value, the academic principals that enabled the recent financial melt down seem absurd. They always did seem absurd, as did so many connected status behaviours, but specialist languages and vocabularies have such great power to protect self-interest in all arenas.

I am certainly not suggesting that all financial meta language is absurd, but that we have the ability - as we prove over and over again - to get caught up in our own heads and believe our own illusions, whether that be about finance, or race, or war. The lightness presents a more serious point about metalanguage and how insidious it can be, but, yes, it was intended to be light, as though the caveman of A Title had stumbled into a modern metropolis.

PB: How do you and Brian work together? Does he hand you a finished piece or do you work jointly? Do you play an instrument or produce music?

RH: Brian and I have always worked jointly. He is a fantastic and generous collaborator, and, as such, the writing process has never been strictly defined. We have approached every piece differently. The words and music grow from each other, with words as a seed, one day, and music, the next, and it was very rare that two finished pieces called 'words' and 'music' were just stuck together, though a couple of successful pieces, not on the record, were made that way too.

I would say I am a well-qualified lab technician who keeps on learning the professor's skills as he goes through life. I don't play an instrument, but I have worked with musicians for a long time now and have picked up a great deal from them. My ongoing project with Old Man Diode has involved beat maker, lyricist and songwriting roles being interchanged in the studio, so myself, Diode and the guest artists including Onnalee (Reprazent), Chris James and Beth Rowley have happily merged into one entity in the writing and production. I love working like this.

PB: As a poet, please tell us: who are your favourite poets/poems. Why do some people disregard poetry as elusive?

RH: I recently wrote a quick blog that would answer this question best, I think, so I hope you don't mind me linking to that by way of answer.

I have always responded most to those with simple clarity in their expression, DH Lawrence as poet, William Blake, Edward Thomas, Sylvia Plath, and, in the same breath, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Jehst and a range of poets from MC cultures, from the Wu Tang Clan to jungle MCs.

I would have to add that some of my favourite poetry is spoken by Caliban in The Tempest. I think that is Shakespeare's most beautiful work:

"Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds me thought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again."

I would imagine that people that disregard poetry as elusive have been force-fed the kinds of things I once tried to study at university, and found that they have been difficult or out of reach or just not relevant to their life and experience. They may think of poetry as only those kinds of things, on paper or declaimed, and, as a result, have quite understandably switched off to anything classified under that name. A new name can help. People flock to spoken word nights now, though this, too, has strong connotations. Call it anything; it is anything that makes the world come alive for you.

Snobbery also probably doesn't deserve a mention, but it does exist. It takes a great deal of work to develop into a 'published poet', a great deal of reading, a great deal of practice and a great deal of skill. Poets (established ones) deserve a capital P, I think of poet (and musician!) Don Paterson (here transposing Machado) "It's not love's later heat that poetry holds / But the atom of the love that drew it forth / From the silence" he writes in Poetry, "Beneath the blue oblivious sky, the water / Sings of nothing, not your name, not mine." Snobbery does not have any place in real discussions about poetry.

Seamus Heaney, Jen Hadfield, Carol Ann Duffy. These incredibly gifted poets are at a level to aspire to, but they are not elitist, they write about the everyday moments that grab us all:

"Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train."

From Prayer, Carol Ann Duffy, Mean Time, Anvil, 1994

PB: Thank you