Commentary On 4 Musicpoems by Ron Riekki & Dan Wrzesinski
Comments by Ron Riekki
I’ll keep my thoughts to a thick Samuel Beckett-style page (i.e. no paragraph breaks) about the process of turning my poetry into what Dan Wrzesinski and I have come to dub as “musicpoems,” i.e. poems set to music. Although musicpoetry isn’t brand new—I immediately think of Spirits Burning setting Robert Calvin’s poetry Centigrade 232 to music—it does feel like there is a serious interest with the advent of the internet, that the form (musicpoetry) is perfect for the medium. I was always told poetry is meant to be spoken, not read; it allows us a further sensory experience of the words. I also love the collaborative aspect of working with a musician. I’m big on collaborating. I started as a playwright at Central Michigan University (CMU). One of the things I love about collaborating is to get to see your words turned into something you didn’t expect. Dan Wrzesinski was a student at CMU when I was there. It was a hodgepodge of incredibly talented, odd, varied individuals—members of The Verve Pipe lived in my dorm, and I hung out sporadically with people like Ryan Hopak (who went on to pen hits for The Dr. Demento Show), DJ SirReal (who replaced Kid Rock in The Howling Diablos), and Greg Siers (who was nominated for an Emmy as a producer). Dan was part of the CMU comedy show Aardvark, which included all of the people mentioned above (except The Verve Pipe). Dan was dangerously artistic, intensely odd, and I liked that he was brave enough to be that way. He also made me worried. I remember a person punching him in the face in Chicago when we were walking to the el, because Dan was being too obnoxiously animated. He’s calmed down now, somewhat, but not in his art. He draws, paints, does music, writes, and it’s mostly eerie, alarming work, stuff that makes you feel strange to experience it. So I emailed him to see if the poems I had been writing might make a good CD, sort of like what Nick Hornby and Ben Folds have been doing, except with much less of a pop sensibility. I wanted something low fidelity, pitching that Dan could do “anything he wanted.” Happy he said yes, I emailed him the poems and let him go to town. He sent me tracks, and for the most part I OKed everything, except a few where I demanded a better reading. The music, 99% of the time, was dead-on, but I pushed him to explore different tonalities, rhythms, and other possibilities with the vocals, especially pushing him on a track called “I See Ghosts” that now is the CD opener because it turned out so well. At one time, Dan sent a track and I emailed back saying it sounded like he was on antidepressants, that it was fine if he was, but it wasn’t fine if it was forcing his art towards ho-hum neutrality. I wanted the pre-antidepressant dangerously artistic Dan, and, rather than having him go through an off-meds psychotic break, I wanted the opposite; I was hopeful working on this project would be healthy for him, give him some serious, positive goals considering some of the things that were going on in his life at the time. I basically hinted to act insane, not be insane, that you don’t have to be unstable to do art, but rather can control it, to allow himself to go for the strangeness that I found Dan so attracted to in the early years I knew him, when he was a fan of the most radical of Bill Hicks’ bits and the most bizarre of underground bands like B-side Captain Beefheart. Compared to the hyperactivity of his early work, there’s some maturity in the CD Dan turned out, Leave Me Alone I’m Bleeding (based off of my Gypsy Daughter Press chapbooks Leave Me Alone I’m Bleeding and Poems about Love, Death and Heavy Metal). I appreciate Verse Wisconsin encouraging this genre of poetry, the musicpoem, and hope more publishers will embrace its possibilities, especially poems read by people other than the poet and accompanied by sounds other than silence and the occasional John Cage 4’33” coughing. Verse Wisconsin is including "And I Still Want This" (published in Flutter Poetry Journal) "My Uncle Paul Calls from Baltimore to Tell Me about His Dreams (A Found Poem)" and "A List of Famous Mustaches" (Salit Magazine), and "Shooting" (Loch Raven Review). I hope the audio enhances the experience of the poems. At times on the CD, I feel Dan's pure genius. For more on Riekki, visit http://rariekki.webs.com/.
Comments by Dan Wrzesinski
And I Still Want This
Fatherhood is something I’ve experienced and Ron hasn’t. I erroneously thought of this poem as Ron’s longing for fatherhood, but as he pointed out, a poem doesn’t necessarily have to be about the author who penned it.
The character in Ron’s poem laments the life he never got to live, as he slumps over his easy chair, half dead to the world, staring straight through his kids as they play on the floor in front of a TV which has served as more of a babysitter than an entertainment unit.
The music for this poem sounds like a toddler banging his hands on a keyboard, mixed in with baby giggles. It has a sad sound to it, when the audio is put together with the poem. You can almost see the dust floating in the sunbeams that peek through the curtains of the living room, smell the aroma of old cigarettes that have burned their way into the ceiling tiles, and see the layers of grime accumulating on the bottoms of the children’s footy pajamas as they wrestle on the carpet, ignoring their parents’ shouts to “Calm down!” and “Knock it off!”
This poem makes me sad. It’s hard for me to listen to. But I am quite proud of it.
My Uncle Paul Calls from Baltimore To Tell Me About His Dreams (a found poem)
This was one of the first poems I recorded. I liked the subject matter. I myself am a recovering alcoholic, so I have a sense of the darkness that fills Uncle Paul’s head. I don’t have any experience with heroine however. But the life of an addict, especially one who’s caught up in the throes of their addiction, can be a maddening experience.
The music for this piece comes from a time when my addiction was just beginning to take hold of me. It comes from a hazy night in Toledo, Ohio where I was visiting some friends. I brought along a copy of my “Otherworldy” CD, and my friend Joe had his own ramshackle music studio, set up in this old speakeasy in a poor side of town. He and I were there late one night, and I had an analogue tape recorder. Joe was messing with my “Otherworldy” album, found a portion he liked, and played it as a loop. He played it loud in the studio while he sat at a drum set and pounded away. So I pressed record on my tape recorder and ran around the studio banging away on conga drums, xylophones and an old Hammond organ from the 1960’s. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I had no idea how to really play these instruments. We were both high and just goofing around. It’s a shame the audio quality is so poor.
When it came time to look for a musical piece for “Uncle Paul…” I thought this fitting because of its chaotic nature. It sounds a lot like the “Free Form Freakout” experiments that The Red Krayola did on their very first album. It also seemed to illustrate the kind of madness and insanity that swirls in the mind of an addict who is so strung out or drunk he can’t think straight.
I mixed another piece of music over my friend John Class playing his alto saxophone. He gave me plenty of saxophone samples, so I had lots left over to spare.There’s also the sound of me making some sort of odd throat noise, like a pig grunt. I pressed the microphone up to my throat and uncorked the back of my tongue from the roof of my mouth repeatedly to get the sound. It all sounds very muffled and mixed together like a thick stew. If I can think of any sound to depict the feeling of being sick and drunk and confused as can be, this piece of audio would fit perfectly. It’s a mess, to be sure. But it works. I don’t know what I would have done with this piece otherwise. It just seemed like it was meant to be. From the dark corners of an old Toldeo speakeasy in 2000, to Ron’s poetry album in 2010, it all just came together.
List of Famous Moustaches
I know this poem by heart. Of course it’s a short, simple one, but very enjoyable and funny. One of my favorites. I recorded my voice for this one a number of times to get it just right. I kind of like the way it sounds like I’m getting out of my chair to demonstrate putting a plunger on my upper lip. That was the result of splicing two different takes together where my voice was a little further away from the microphone than the previously used take. I didn’t like the way that sounded, but preferred the take. So I placed a clip of the sound of my swivel chair being picked up on the microphone, and it seemed to work. Presto!
The music was another piece from the vaults, and probably would have ended up on the KTS debut had I ever developed a spoken bit of my own to put over it. In fact, the place where the music goes quieter for about a minute or so was intended for just that purpose. It was such a simple loop, I figured if my own poem ever ended up longer, I could just copy and paste more loop, no problem. But, as it turned out, when I recorded “The List of Famous Mustaches” and dropped the dialogue onto the music track, it fit perfectly in that little bridge! I probably spent the least amount of time editing this track because it came together in such a snap. In fact, many of the poems came together this way. It was enough to make me believe that God himself was behind this project because the coincidences were just too many. You may think I put months of work into Leave Me Alone, I’m Bleeding, but it all came together in under 2 months. Take into account that I have a job, a girlfriend, and a life besides that, and it’s pretty remarkable. Of course, some of these music pieces go back years into my past, and who knows how many hours were spent composing them. But “The List of Famous Mustaches” is the perfect example of how my work and Ron’s work just came together like puzzle pieces. Click, and its done. Amazing!
I am not a basketball fan, though I don’t mind watching it occasionally. I understand the sport. My sport was always baseball. Football I can’t stand.
I was surprised to learn, when Ron came by to hear the album for the first time with me, that this track is more about dealing with gun violence. The line where he talks about his cousin getting shot while being in a part of town he shouldn’t have been is the central focus of the poem, at least in the mind of the guy playing basketball. The inner city court, with the rim with no net, is where he comes to escape from the insanities of the city.
I first took this poem as an ode to basketball, to a kind of spiritual oneness with the sport. I could see that Ron was illustrating it as some kind of escape from something, but the gun violence part – hence the title – (duh!) I completely missed. At the time, I thought it fitting that the music I chose for this poem sounded somewhat like church music, as if the basketball court was a place where the author goes to connect with God. The music was inspired by a German ambient-techno group called Kammerflimmer Kollektief. It was a piece I had given up on, trying to mimic their sound. It would have been lost and forgotten had Ron not come along with his poems. Once again, the marriage of music and verse was seamless. All it needed was the basketball sound effect, provided by my father, Russ Wrzesinski. I pulled him away from a garage project on a 92-degree Michigan summer day to dribble some hoops in the driveway. At 55 years old, he could only keep this up for about as long as the duration of the poem, and you can hear him kind of complaining about it at the end of the track. It just so happens that the hoop in our driveway has no net, just as described in the poem, which is why you don’t hear any swishing sound. Just the dribble and the sound of the ball hitting the backboard.
Dan Wrzesinski's comments were originally published on his blog about the collaboration.