Kelleher: On today’s “Blend” I have a few guests. We’d like to welcome poet Ernest Hilbert and musician Dave Young, who with help from fellow musician Marc Hildenberger and composer Christopher LaRosa—along with a small array of fellow musicians, guest readers, and a small chamber ensemble—have combined to make a musical poetry album called Elegies & Laments, very visceral and keen journey for the adventurous listener.
Thank you, Dave and Ernie, for coming in to WDIY studios today to talk about your work.
Hilbert: Great. Well, thanks for having us.
Young: Yeah. Thanks.
Kelleher: So, what brought about this collaboration? Was there a moment that brought about the inspiration for this merging of both music and poetry in art?
Hilbert: Well, that’s a good question. I mean the idea had its germ many years ago with Marc Hildenberger—and this is long before I met Dave. We had the idea of doing a poetry album, a spoken-word album with special effects and sound effects, Foley work, and some music, but that project sort of died on the vine because we were so young. We really didn’t have the time or the resources to pull it off.
Many years later, I got back together with Marc, and he was playing bass for a Philly band called The Greyjacks. I went out to catch a show at World Café. It turned out to be the last show they would be doing together as a group. Dave was the guitarist for that band, so they had some time to take on another project. I was introduced to Dave that night.
Kelleher: So, Dave, tell us how you got attracted to this after being told about the whole project?
Young: Yeah. Well, you know, like he said, Marc Hildenberger and I had worked together in a band called The Greyjacks, and right about that time when I met Ernie, Marc and I had met at a bar down in South Philly to have a drink and just talk about what’s next, and that’s when he told me, he said, you know, I really enjoy working with you; and I reciprocated and said, you know, whatever comes next, let’s keep each other in the loop and let’s work together. And that’s when he told me about this thing that he and Ernie had been talking about for years and said I think that you and I would work really well together on this, so just sort of an opportunity that I saw to be able to continue to work with Marc who I really respected and enjoyed working with.
Kelleher: Reading through the packet along with the CD, I saw, Dave, it was you and not Ernie who chose the sixteen poems that make up of the four tracks of Elegies & Laments. How did you go about choosing the selected poems for the CD?
Young: Yeah. I mean we, you know, we did it as a team. There were number of people involved in selecting the poems, Ernie was—he was involved, Marc was involved, I was involved, my wife, Kristine, was also involved in selecting the poems. But, ultimately what I tried to do was just to get everybody to look at the poems and see how they would be experienced in an audible medium, you know, how we can use sound to create, you know, to tell a story. The poems that we chose were ones that had a story that was really enhanced by the audio and the sound medium.
Hilbert: Also, to give a little background for listeners, these were taken from a collection called Sixty Sonnets, which came out in 2009. It has a number of sections grouped thematically. Each poem is a sonnet, it’s fourteen lines, and it takes about one minute to read, give or take. So, what they were working with was a group of poems each of the same exact length to choose from, and many of these were already grouped together in chapters in the book.
Kelleher: It’s fascinating. So, working on this project and producing this was a different challenge for you, Dave, apart from working, say, just with a straight music record. How is it making sound effects and layers of sound to produce interesting textures for the listening experience? Tell us about this process with the effects and how that came about in with the texts that Ernie was reading on the tracks?
Hilbert: Well, actually, I’ll let Dave speak because you asked him the question. But, I wanted to point out the first thing we did was actually record the poems, so this was not me reading over a rhythm or any kind of pre-recorded track, as I think most people would go about doing it. So, we started out with just the raw voice tracks and then he worked from there.
Young: Quite honestly, before even going into effects and trying to create that soundscape we tried to set a tone with the music, and that was really Marc Hildenberger, the other producer. He’s a bass player by trade, and I’m a guitarist. And so, the two of us would sit there with these recordings and some of these recordings have been, you know, many months if not a year old or something like that where we just been listening to them and listening to them and finally we would just sit down and listen to Ernie reading them back. We’d already put them into their sections in other quadrants. We’ve already chosen before any of the music had been written. We’d chosen which poems would be in, you know, in the quadrants. And then, we would sit there and listen to them play back and just play [our instruments].
[0:04:57] Marc would come up with the bassline, and I would then come in on guitar, and we come up with these musical themes which kind of set the tone. To answer your questions specifically, the sound effect was very much a secondary thing. There were things that I would hear when reading the poems in the storyline. I would hear a description of a car being chased and speeding away. I would hear the sound of a car being, you know, chased or when he speaks of being in a desert wasteland, I would hear—I actually think I went searching and could never actually find it, but I was actually searching online for sound effects of a tumble weed, like how do you actually search for the sound of a tumbleweed? I was never able to find that. I actually had to create, you know, my own sound like what I would think it would sound like to hear a tumbleweed, you know, flying by, but, yeah.
Kelleher: That’s great. So, basically, the subject matter of the poem is kind of formed the quadrants themselves and then you went from after the subject matter you came and—you came together with the music, because when you first hear the CD, I’ll just call it the CD, I’m sorry. It’s also available in vinyl and digital download too.
Young: That’s right.
Kelleher: Available on your website, PubCanPhily.com. But, also vinyl—white vinyl limited edition, black vinyl, CD, streaming, and digital download. So, when the listener puts on, you know, the album, you hear glimpses of past tunes hear the radio squelch and that’s a nice device to bring it—starting and bringing it all together all the different tracks and I thought that was really a—it was really good.
Hilbert: Well, I think—I believe, well, I shouldn’t take credit unduly, but I do believe that the radio squelch idea may have been mine, as a transitional device. I’m not sure exactly when I came up with it. I do have a lot of archival recordings of poets, beginning with these old recordings that date back to wax cylinders of Walt Whitman in the very late nineteenth century, up to more recent poets. I thought: wouldn’t it be funny to have someone listening to the great wasteland of commercial radio and come across Sylvia Plath, and then they come across John Berryman or T.S. Eliot or Allen Ginsberg and then they tune in and then get sound effects and then you get some music starting and then my poems come in. And I thought it would sort of set the tone be a little bit of a joke and also something that could repeat and tie the sections together and give a little breather in between.
You know when these guys worked on the music, I would go away for considerable periods of time and then come back in the studio and they would have songs written and then I’d hear them and say, well, that’s really wonderful. So, I got to hear this without—I didn’t write any of the music and so to hear the evolution of this, it was quite astounding for me.
Kelleher: Well, that’s very good. Well, let’s give the listeners a little snippet of the work. This is how Elegies & Laments begins with the radio squelch moving on and directs the listener to the first quadrant which is—features two poems that we’re going to play today here on “The Blend.” The first is “On the 25th Anniversary of the John Lennon’s Murder” and then, soon after, it goes into “Corned Beef Hash and Two Eggs Over, Easy Coffee.” So, we’re going to start with these pieces.
Elegies & Laments right here on “The Blend.”
On a step behinds the Holiday Inn,
Two Russians roamed up, bummed a cigarette,
While a third snuck up, struck me from behind.
I sprawled to asphalt. Then the boot came in.
I swung through the red, but it’s a good bet
I didn’t land one. The blackout was kind.
I woke knotted in blood-ruined sheets, startled:
Smashed, stamped, splintered into a numbed dazzle,
I spat black wads into the fuzzy sink.
One look in the mirror, my brain curdled.
I propped in the shower stall. Steam sizzled.
My hair loosened a sick swirl of sour pink.
They made off, grinning, with all I had: two
Dollars, five cigarettes, my Zippo.
I’m battered all to hell. You should see me.
I’m in the corner of a bright diner,
The very one from Suzanne Vega’s song.
Every time I limp to the john to pee
[0:10:01] The whole crowd stares at my glaring shiner.
My whole face: swollen eggplant. Before long
I will try to remember what happened.
Memory is just a haunting of ghosts,
And the night is crushed below like eggshell.
In the ER the doctors pretended
I would be fine, and they were quite good hosts.
They stapled my head back together well.
I am sinking on a soft black balloon,
Dreaming of the break. It is coming soon.
Kelleher: You just heard two pieces from the work by Dave Young and Ernest Hilbert. We heard two pieces, “On the 25th Anniversary of John Lennon’s Murder” and then, soon after, “Corned Beef Hash and Two Eggs Over Easy, Coffee” from their latest work.
I hear glimpses of past tunes and artists, the Doors and Nirvana, Guns N’ Roses come up from listening to this work which works for the poems very well. Tell us, Dave, about the process of how you chose, I guess the moods that you and Marc chose, the moods for each of these poems musically. I heard a lot of, you know, definitely the Guns N’ Roses on the one piece.
Young: That’s definitely, I mean I think what happened and—we didn’t set out to do this necessarily at the very beginning, we just would listen to a poem and say what does this poem call for, like what is the mood. And so, as you’re mentioning Nirvana and Guns N’ Roses, you know. That piece is a piece where Ernie is just talking about all types of misbehavior and, you know, mayhem that he’s doing and it just was calling for this ruckus, you know, rock sound.
And so, it didn’t necessarily start out that way, it’s just, you know, we started playing a musical theme and then how do we treat this musical theme to evoke that emotion or that sound or that, you know, whatever. So, I think that’s why that the album itself takes the wide journey of musical styles. Like you said it goes from the Doors sound or the Nirvana or Guns N’ Roses all the way to like, you know, blues or jazz and, you know, finishes with the classical piece, you know, the whole—it really runs the gamut, and it’s because the pieces themselves go there.
Kelleher: Yeah. It’s like you’re actually listening to Ernest’s life through this whole thing. Oh, this is when he was doing this, this is what happened then, you know, it’s very autobiographical.
Hilbert: Right. I mean it captures the range and eclecticism of the subject matter and the themes of the poems and the tones of the poems. When you’re doing sixty poems of a similar or exactly the same length in a row you’ve got to have a huge amount of variety and so that was matched wonderfully in the variety of the music that they picked and wrote for it.
Kelleher: Really rich experience listening to this and well done, gentlemen. I really enjoyed the pieces and I wish you a lot of success with this work.
Hilbert: Thank you.
Kelleher: Ernie, how did using Paul, Quincy, and Christine for the poetry night track work out? It brought about a nice diversion and possibility for all those pieces. It was quite nice.
Hilbert: Well, I like the idea of someone else . . . I originally wanted a woman to read all of the ones from a woman’s perspective. I read some of the ones from a woman’s perspective and we kept it. We brought in Christine to do one of them that absolutely has to be spoken by a woman. It simply wouldn’t make any sense coming from me. And I like the way you have a lot of pop music artists saying they have a song featuring so and so, featuring so and so, so and so, and so and so.
And, it’s an added attraction when you listen to it because other artist that you like may also be appearing on it and I thought that, you know, Paul and Quincy are a bit younger than I am, have very distinct styles from my own, but are both very wrapped up in music as well. Quincy is a bass player and Paul is very much influenced by different types of music he listens to. And so, I brought them in and they, I think all three of those guest readers did a wonderful job. They acquitted themselves with aplomb, if you will, and they brought out their own distinct style. You know Paul has got his sort of wacky style and Quincy his sort of arch, sort of British style, you know, and then, Christine did this great sort of nonchalant approach.
Hilbert: Right, like I can barely be bothered to do this and so, it was perfect. It’s absolutely ideal for our purposes. So, I think for lots of the album, it breaks the album a little bit and that . . .
Hilbert: That third section is the fun section of the album because the other sections are pretty heavy.
Kelleher: Bit arduous, but still . . .
Hilbert: Right. We’d put some fun, more comic flourishes into that one.
Kelleher: The lighter third act.
Hilbert: Yes. That’s exactly what it is.
Kelleher: Just a couple of more questions. The symphonic arrangements on part four of Elegies & Laments add great drama and tension for the listener. Well, well done both, Dave and Ernie with that one. Was the use of strings an original plan for these tracks or was it an organic addition later on in the process?
Young: Yeah, I mean we actually read those final—the final poems for that last piece, I think we always had that in mind to be the last section of the album and we wanted to—wanted it to have a symphonic quality to it. I’m not exactly sure we had any idea how it was going to sound or how we were going to capture that sound or create it.
What actually happened was I just happened to start working on some projects with a young up-and-coming composer named Christopher LaRosa, and he’s an extremely talented guy, and at the time had just gotten into college, freshman at Ithaca University and he was studying composition there. And I just showed him the works and said, would you be interested in being a part of this, and we already had come up with a theme as we had said with all the other pieces. Marc Hildenberger had sat down and come up with a bassline or a musical theme that he had come up with on the bass, and I just gave him a very simple two-note theme from the bass and said “what can you do with this?”
Kelleher: Wow. That’s amazing.
Young: So, what you hear is just basically a theme of variations from this very small little thing.
Hilbert: It matches—it matches the rest of the music as a result. There’s this sort of descending figure and that last section is titled “Elegies & Laments,” and that’s what the album takes its title from. And so, we really wanted to do something special for it, and it literally begins with a poem in a graveyard and then, sort of little fantasia of imagining the Biglin brothers racing—they were famous brothers who were champion rowers who were subjects . . . painting subjects of Thomas Eakins, whose grave is visited in the previous poem. And then, the next poem is this ancient lament, and then, finally, it ends with an elegy.
So, we wanted to take it very, very seriously and I think Christopher LaRosa literally scored line for line almost the way someone doing a score for movie would watch the movie and add something because someone raised their arm or fell down the stairs. He went line for line, expanding, bringing things out, adding instruments, reducing them. He sat and really explained all the complex things he had done. I was incredibly impressed and felt, you know, almost unequal to it because, I mean, it does so much for the poetry, and it really does bring it to a new level.
Kelleher: Yeah. It’s a very regal and majestic part of the CD, and it ends beautifully that way. I think it does bring a lot of great depth to the material, so, good for Christopher LaRosa, also composer and along with musician, Dave Young, producer Dave Young, and poet Ernest Hilbert combining to do a really great work called Elegies & Laments. We’re going to finish the interview today here on “The Blend.”
Thanks guys for coming in.
Hilbert: Thank you.
Kelleher: We’re going to finish with two pieces from the last part, four, of Elegies & Laments with “Biglin Brothers Racing” and then “Calavera for a Friend.” So, go to PubCanPhilly.com for more information about purchasing either the CD, the vinyl, or the download for this really great work.
Thanks gentlemen for coming in to WDIY and “The Blend.”
Hilbert: Thank you. It’s always a pleasure.
[Sound effect] Nimble rowers, their art ancient as war,
Raise their oars and ride gently on dented gold
As sun shocks the river to ribboned fire.
They haul hard and halt. Nothing prepares for
Their clear and precise aim. They raise and fold
Their blades under, pull, draw, rest, and respire.
Simple flexed machines of doused oar, bright fleck,
Trained across cold surfaces brisk as steel,
Delicate insect thrash, more than just life,
More than we allow ourselves to expect;
Polished slender shell and jet-drawn keel.
Thrust through late noon light, fine as a knife.
Muscled rowers glide on their mirrored sky,
Winners, champions, built only to die.
[0:20:02] When your heart is scorched out, the unruly world
Will seal around you as a dark ocean
Behind a ship at dusk—the wake will fade
And spread wider, until fully unfurled.
Love reserved for you will slacken. Your portion
Of commerce ends with the last deal you made.
A stranger will take your job, buy your home,
Maybe wear your shirts and shoes, and the books
You cherished will be thumbed by new readers.
Young tourists will roam everywhere you roamed.
Some small items might remain, artifacts,
Footnotes, fingerprints, cuff links, little anchors,
Small burrs that cling: initials carved in a tree,
Your name inscribed where no one will see.
[0:21:50] End of Audio