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ROCKPILE Poetry and Music in Collaboration: One Musician’s Take






Daniel McNaughton

When Michael and David first ran Rockpile by me, I was very interested. I had been kicking around the idea of a collaboration between poets and musicians, and here was a chance to perform the piece. 

I had worked with poets before, in New Orleans and in Chicago where I live now. Sometimes I had improvised, most often in either a free jazz or funk/hip hop vein, and sometimes the music was predetermined, in part, as when I was part of Richard Theodore’s group playing Thelonious Monk tunes as John Sinclair read poems about Monk. Sometimes the musicians had interacted with the poet, in a call and response way, and other times the music had simply made its way underneath. So there’s a number of ways of doing it.

Typically, the poets have not improvised. They often gave some indication of what direction they wanted the music to go in—or what mood they wanted to convey—so while the music might be improvised, it was not entirely up to the musicians.

The poets have thus tended to run the show. They’ve been the impetus. They wanted music around them while they read, which is hardly surprising since just about all of the poets I know are crazy about music. Most of the musicians I’ve performed with in these situations have taken great care not to drown out the poets—this is easily done if more than one musician is involved.

I certainly didn’t want to drown out the poets with my piece. My intent was actually to give them space—and the band as well. The piece I envisioned was called “The Breaks.” A break in jazz is a short pause by all members of the group that gives a soloist a chance to speak his or her peace a capella, as it were. I also liked the expression “the breaks,” having to do with how things fell out. I combined this with another feature of jazz improvisation, “trading fours,” in which two or more soloists go back and forth over short sections of a tune. 

This is how I arranged “The Breaks” with Michael and David: my group, Spider Trio, played some short riff or idea of mine (two minutes or less), and then Michael and David each read something short. From a musical standpoint, I was working a theme and variations angle, with the locale—Chicago—serving in my mind as the theme. Michael and David and Terri had visited a number of cities and I wanted to make my contribution site specific. 

We did not rehearse the piece, so Michael and David had no idea what music was coming their way, and likewise my group didn’t know what Michael and David would read. We cycled through this a few times, and then, curiously, as my group played what I thought would be the closing portion of the piece, Michael and David began to improvise. This wasn’t a huge stretch for David, a musician himself, but it was something new for Michael. They were both evidently rather fried as a result of all their traveling, and their giddiness made for quite a contrast with the mood of the music being played.

Looking back on this specific interaction, I can’t say if the piece worked. Even with the music largely composed ahead of time, and the poetry much more so, it was still fairly unpredictable what the final result would be like. Clearly, no consistency of tone or of practice could possibly ensue. Did I really believe the poets and we musicians would respond to one another—that they would in fact trade fours? Maybe what was important was not what was said, but how it was said. First and foremost, were the poets more animated based on the music they were hearing? Were the musicians more into it because it was a different performance situation? What about the audience? Did the poetry and music enhance one another or cancel one another out?

For my part, I hoped that the poets would be pleased—they had gotten this together, after all. That’s me speaking as a bassist. As a composer, I wanted the audience to get brief hits of different types of intelligence. 

Finally, I’ve been around poetry all my life and am pretty crazy about it; I feel that it’s plenty interesting by itself (as is music). So I will always be ambivalent about putting the two together—and yet happy to give it a shot.




copyright © Dan McNaughton 


Dan McNaughton was born in 1966 in Buffalo, New York, and grew up in Bolinas and Santa Cruz, California. He began playing electric bass at 19 and switched to the upright at 26. He leads the jazz group Spider Trio, which has released two cds, Permission (2001) and Presences (2007). Presently he lives and performs in Chicago, Illinois.