Friday, July 11, 2008

Speak, Brother, Speak: a mish-mash of thoughts on words and music

Stef at Free Jazz blog posted some gripes about poetry and spoken word in jazz a few days ago, and allthough I understand some of his points, especially point 2 in his list, I don't nescessarilly agree wholly. Although I prefer my jazz instrumental, I don't think putting poetry to music or vice versa is doing it with the breaks on.

But there may be some difference in what we understand as poetry here. I can't as I type this think of a single piece of music writen to accompany an existing poem that I like. But I can think of several lyrics written in a the style of a poem, or at least certainly in the style of spoken word, that I like or even love. The argument can be made though, that these texts aren't strictly poetry, but song lyrics with elements of poetry or spoken word.

Here I must re-itrate my stance that lyrics be made a separate literary category. Some commentators/critics/scholars have previously tried to elevate certain lyrics and lyricists to the annals of literature on the basis of theis supposed poetic qualities. To me this isn't necessary, since I think good lyrics can hold their own just fine. The way I see it, song lyrics may contain elemnts that are common in poetry, such as thythm, rhyme, and repetitive elements, but the language in lyrics, even most of the best ones, is more often in the vernacular especially compared to earler poetry. But even more important is the fact that lyrics are meant to be performed much like a play or a speech in such a way that the performance has impact on the meaning of the words. Stef proposes how reading poetry silently can do this too, but I have little qualms about having poetry read out loud.

Putting words to a pre-written piece of music is not necessarily the one route lyricists go about writing lyrics. As a songwriter in spe I distinctly remember having both words and skeletal pieces of music come to me at the same time (maybe because the rhythm, rhymes and the repetitiveness of the words and lyrics had musical elements, though I do not claim I was any good at either writing lyrics nor music). I have read and heard accounts of songwriters doing their work in a similar manner.

But I stray, especially if the point is talking about poetry and jazz. Like I said, I tend to prefer my jazz instrumental, but here are some examples of poetry and music that I like (though, considering what I've written above, we could just call them lyrics and leave it at that).

  • Charles Mingus - "The Clown" (from The Clown, 1957)
  • I even like Mingus' "Original Fabous Fables" (from Charles Mingus Presents..., Candid, 1960)) with lyrics as much as it's non-word version "Fabous Fables" (from Mingus Ah Um, (Columbia, 1959))

  • and then there's this:


Unknown said...

Props on Gil Scott heron Video! Ultimately I think its about emotion when connecting the poetry to music. No matter which comes first the vibes must compliment each other.


The Spoken Word Hip Hop Poet

Chris Monsen said...

Totally agree.

Reza said...

Must admit I have a bit of a penchant for spoken word mixed with jazz , try having a listen to side 2 of this album on my blog, quite beatiful

Try also Journeys to Odyseuss post or The two Book of Moses mixes , somehow I find the words almost enhance the music
Hey were all different :)

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