The Lion’s Face notes
by Brian Howe
March 17, 2013, Chapel Hill
I started mixing recordings of poets reading their work into electro-acoustic compositions about seven years ago. I liked how vivid and vigorous orated contemporary poetry—not always known for vividness and vigor—could sound when blended with processed acoustic instruments or synthetic tones. I liked making the elemental similarities between experimental poetry and experimental music explicit. And I liked trying to find my own way through the spoken material while remaining sensitive to its essence, as most of it was graciously provided by poets I admired and knew at least well enough to contact.
This resulted in the album Black Sail, an electro-poetic anthology of sorts featuring a different person on every track, including Tim Van Dyke. I knew Tim from the Lucifer Poetics list and held his poem “The Wolving Ritual” in high esteem. The track I made with an excerpt from it, “Owls,” was probably the highlight of Black Sail. So when Tim asked last year if I wanted to make some mixes with poems in his new Argotist Online chapbook, Light on the Lion’s Face, I readily agreed.
Tim’s writing is a great sonic material. It frames pungent recurring imagery with incantatory rhythms; it’s daringly personal but has a certain affectual steadiness that meshes with any kind of music and easily recombines with itself; it’s sturdy enough to be tampered with without being compromised. Tim lets me distort his words, drown them in layers or even carve out new phrases. This is important because I have no interest in just sticking accompaniment on poems. I want to use poetry as a flexible compositional element, though voices inevitably assert leading roles.
Tim sent me recordings of himself reading from the book and then gave me feedback as I made the music using virtual instruments, acoustic instruments and field recordings. Whereas on Black Sail I used a rudimentary set of strategies with many different poets, I took The Lion’s Face as an opportunity to test more diverse strategies with a single poet. I thought each piece of the whole should cast the texture of Tim’s language in a distinct light. As I sought overall cohesion, two fixations emerged.
One was drawing the melody out of speech—no singing was done for the record; speech was digitally nudged into song. The other was using musical gestures in a rhetorical fashion—that is, exploring constructions that sounded musical and organized without obeying music’s overriding logic. Rather than shaping Tim’s language around mathematically determined changes in harmonics, dynamics and time, I wanted to let melodies and rhythms flow alongside its emotional track; a wayward parallel stream with its own impetus and perspective, freely reacting, affirming and demurring.
Here are some nuts-and-bolts impressions of each track for those who enjoy such things (I do).
“Daylight as a Psalm” was chosen to open because of its placid, welcoming slowness, at least after I thinned out the unnerving thicket of high voices in the back half. The way it carries Tim’s speech from an approximately normal state to deformed song outlines the playing field. The music was composed on a virtual staff with MIDI classical instruments.
“Seduction” is meant as a sort of poppy single, with its dance and electronic ambient foundations: The poet as house diva. Tim’s words here are very dark and wise. I wanted to highlight them while softening their deep blows with a sultry, flourishing setting. But I think it might have just made them seem darker.
“Mirror” softly scours a tuned, startlingly soulful male computer voice between panes of out-of-phase sound, one glassy and one rather aqueous. The measured intervals of the computer voice contrast Tim’s pitch-corrected voice elsewhere, which organically grows more demonstratively songful as he warms up into his readings, gathering passion, his inflections bending and swinging farther.
“Completely Be Safe” introduces both Tim’s natural voice and the full texture of an acoustic instrument. Long, filtered acoustic guitar loops running at various speeds and pitches make up most of the track; the layering and repetition of one structure at different scales is something I often do.
“Dizzy” is based around a few heavily post-produced piano themes. It’s firmly lodged in my imagination as an expression of this kind of misty dream place where you wander through numberless curtains in a few repeating shapes, but all different colors and textures and sizes. Or is that a trick of distance and perspective? Time and space get mushy enough that the “spirits are given liberty to speak.” The beady sound throughout is an awesome rainstick.
“Ludic” is a post-human nightmare for female computer voice, insensate open cello intervals, rubbed-together palms and a bit of black-hole noise. I wanted to emphasize the sinister nature of a game, so mercilessly elaborated in the poem, to seek its final conclusion. My electro-poetic stuff tends toward spooky, but I find this piece frankly terrifying.
“Corpse” is all synthetic except for Tim’s voice, designed as a vacuum sealed trance, and the B-side of the theoretical “Seduction” single.
“The Collector” has this smoky, lantern-lit old-world aura to me, despite its primitive electronic gloss. A wheezy electric organ with a noisy fan provides most of the sound; you can hear the basic material as it was played in the coda.
“Eyes Close” is a rough piano etude slowed waaaaaaay down, as to blow up imperfections in the time and inflection until, with luck, they shine out as unique features rather than unwanted mistakes. You can also hear an example of the small signatures I sometimes hide around—“trampling the thick of the luminous night” is a phrase I cut and pasted together instead of verbatim Tim.
“War to Extinction” was the first track I made for The Lion’s Face, and thematically a direct sequel to “Ludic,” but it was too scorched-earth to do anything except close the album.