Composer and soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom has often tapped other disciplines to spark her musical explorations. For example, she has translated the motion behind Jackson Pollock’s colorful paint splatters to her horn; conversed musically with recent Kennedy Center Honoree dancer/choreographer Carmen De Lavallade, a master of physical storytelling; pondered the questions behind neuroscience research through her instrument; and crafted music that reflects the views of the Earth from space, as the first musician ever commissioned by the NASA art program. (There’s even an asteroid named for her: 6083 Janeirabloom).
It should come as no surprise then that Bloom’s latest project finds her investigating yet another realm: poetry. Wild Lines takes its inspiration from fragments of writings by Emily Dickinson, reimagining them for jazz quartet. Dickinson’s unruly, transcendent texts are voiced by actress Deborah Rush. Bloom recently released a recording of Wild Lines on her own record label, Outline. In advance of an acoustic duo concert with bassist Kent McLagan at St. Paul’s German Lutheran Church in Chelsea on Nov. 17, National Sawdust Log spoke with Bloom about her latest exploration.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: Wild Lines is your 17th album, and it’s the first one to explore music and text.
JANE IRA BLOOM: Imagine that, for someone married to an actor!
What made you decide to go in that direction at this particular moment?
I’ve worked with theater and film and in all kinds of other settings, but, yes, this is the first time I’ve recorded my own music with text. I was inspired by Emily Dickinson because she was a piano player and an improviser. Any time I read her poetry, it felt musical to me—and it felt improvisatory. It freed me from a traditional approach, which would have been writing a tone poem, or setting her poems to music. I used fragments that sparked my imagination – that made something light up inside of me – to inspire the music. It’s a much more abstract relationship to the text than a specific rendering or an underscoring of her words. I wish I could put it into words, but I can’t.
You are putting it into words perfectly. Can you tell me about your relationship to her poetry? You’re a Massachusetts native and so was she. Were there school trips to the Dickinson house from where you grew up in Newton?
No, the only thing I remember was in 1972 when I was a teenager. WGBH broadcast Julie Harris in The Belle of Amherst. It’s a one-woman play by William Luce on Emily Dickinson, kind of like Mark Twain Tonight! It’s a real inside look at who she was: a vital, funny, sarcastic woman. I loved it, but it wasn’t as if I went and started reading the poetry.
I really got turned on just seven or eight years ago when I went to a lecture at the Philoctetes Center by Alice Quinn, who is both a poet and a historian. She made Dickinson come alive. And I also went to a lecture at the New York Library for the Performing Arts by George Boziwick, who was chief of the music division and is a Dickinson scholar. He talked about the sheet music that she played on the piano – gigues and reels, lively stuff – and the concerts she went to. She wanted to be a musician before she wanted to be a poet, although it was unseemly for a woman at that time. When I started reading some of the formative biographies and the more alternative takes on her life, one described how she made things up on the piano.
Yes, she improvised! Her father would say, “Emily is upstairs making strange things.” She is absolutely not the picture of the woman…
The one with her hair in a bun and a part down the center?
In that daguerreotype we have of her as a teenager, who looks so prim and conservative. This was a wild woman. Her imagination was incredible.
Her poems look wild on the page.
Breaking things up with hyphens, hyphens, hyphens.
And capital letters in the middle of phrases, oh, my! There have been other poets like Dickinson who were published little during their lifetimes. But what’s striking to me is how entitled her editors felt to correct what they saw as these eccentricities, even changing words to “improve” her rhyme schemes. I wonder if they would have treated the work of a male poet the same way. And if she understood how she would have been edited, how she would have been made to fit a certain kind of frame, which strikes me as a kind of experience to female artists. She died in the 1880s and the first time readers got to see her works as she intended was in a 1955 edition.
That’s profound, but I don’t think she had any recourse. There was no place for her to go. Probably the best solution was for her to keep the work to herself.
People may also come to the conclusion that she was prim because she was a spinster – that awful term used for unmarried women in those days – and a recluse. The few articles I’ve read emphasize her work in the domestic sphere—her gardening, her role as the baker for the household and the caretaker for her ailing mother.
Think about the tension between those images and her poetry. Read the poetry! They just don’t go together. In my mind, she was a jazz musician. She did what jazz musicians do. When I listen to her poetry, I feel like I’m listening to Thelonious Monk.
I found an article in The Guardian about settings of her poetry to music that somehow fails to mention her own music making. Apparently, her poetry has been given most musical settings of any poet in history. The count was over 1600 back in early 1990s, including the famous song cycle by Aaron Copland.
Mind-boggling. There is rhythm that must appeal to the musical mind, and a musical mind must have had a part in making it. Another interesting fact is that she was immensely close to the people who worked at her house: they were Irish and black. Maggie [Margaret] Maher, who cooked with her in the kitchen for 17 years, was a surrogate mother figure. Can you imagine the cadence in her voice? That was part of Dickinson’s everyday life. She’d spend her time in the kitchen reading recipes, writing on scraps of paper and envelopes. They look like recipes. Have you seen the book of envelope poems?
A few pages that have been excerpted for articles.
It’s gorgeous. It’s like origami. You can almost see her mind at work, and how she would agonize over a word the same way we composers agonize over notes.
She must have been using every scrap of time in between her domestic tasks.
She wrote a lot between that labor and she wrote a lot at night. Her father “allowed” her to stay up late into the night. She and her brother Austin and his wife used to hang out at the Evergreens, the house right next door to the mansion. It was like they had their own salon late into the evening. I was in that house.
What was it like?
It was uncanny. I played some of my pieces with [pianist] Dawn [Clement] and Deborah [Rush], just the three of us, three women. It was a Wednesday afternoon at 4pm and they’d invited some patrons of the museum to come and we had the grand piano. I’m a saxophonist, so I was looking down at the floor. All of a sudden, I started to see these long yellow shadows. I thought, Holy shit. That’s one of the lines from the poem: “The long yellow shadows.” The same light was coming in the same windows underneath the piano. I’m looking at the same long yellow shadows that she wrote about!
Where did you start in terms of looking at the poems?
I got the complete edition and I just kept reading. And I don’t profess to understand. I just kept reading, and something would jump out at me sometimes. If you look at my book, you’ll know some phrase knocked me out because it’s underlined. And that was the beginning of a piece of music. As an actor, Deborah did even more reading than I did.
How did she come to be involved in the project?
JB: I’ve known Deborah a long time, almost as long as I’ve known Joe [Grifasi, renowned actor and Bloom’s husband]. They’ve worked together on films. When I imagined that there might be a narrator for this project, there was no question in my mind that she would be the voice. When I asked her about it, she was thrilled. I got lucky. When an actor really gets a hold of something and they take it off the page, it’s magical. I knew it would be wonderful when Deborah read these poems, but I don’t think I knew how wonderful it would be.
Can we talk about some specific poetry? “A Murmur in the Trees” is the longest text and inspired your composition “A Star Not Far Enough.” What the heck does this poem mean?
Oh, no, don’t ask me that. I wrote the music, but don’t ask me that.
I don’t pretend to understand this.
Me neither. “A star – not far enough to seek – /Nor near enough to find.” That’s the line that kicked it off: [sings] dah dah dee dee—da dum.
So that’s a literal text setting.
It was in the back of my head. But only the beginning.
And then what? What else did you find in this poem? There are so many images and many seem to conflict with one another, like the tension between “Of robins in the Trundle bed” – which makes you think of little children as birds – and “Whose Nightgowns could night hide the Wings”—are they deceased children? Are they angels? Is it meant to be morbid?
What you’ve touched on is a quality in so much of her poetry.
It reminds me of Salvador Dali’s paintings, where one image is transformed into another. There are a series of moments where reality pivots.
Isn’t that the power of the poetic metaphor? Jazz musicians do this all the time; something from one place and something from a completely different place merge. Together they create something powerful. That’s what so much of her language does for me. I can’t be specific. If I were, then I’d be teaching a course on Dickinson. I’m really somebody who does better with my musical response.
So then tell me about the process of creating the piece. You say you started with this line and a motif that felt to you like that line.
This is a hard one. I don’t know how I write. I wish I could say. I’m in a deeply feeling place.
Do you want to talk about how the piece is structured, then?
Wow, I don’t even think like that. It reveals itself to me. I don’t have a set place that I’m going.
Is there a score for the piece?
It was commissioned by the Doris Duke New Jazz Works, so it’s all written out. Aside from our expression, Dawn and I are playing exactly what I wrote. There’s no improv.
Not at all?
No, it’s all written. That was one of the few. I was in rehearsal once with Dawn and my bass player, Mark Helias, and asked if they thought we should play on this one. And Mark just said, “Nah, leave it the way it is. It’s beautiful.”
Do you want to talk about another one that you do improvise on?
Sure, “Mind Gray River.” The stasis of this ostinato, the repetitive figure that you hear: the soprano line that’s joined by the piano sometimes dips into it and sometimes cascades away. That was definitely about the tension of a mind that is trying to find itself. Or is at odds with itself.
Dickinson was such an outsider, a woman as an outsider. I’m converting her poetry into a kind of jazz landscape from my mind, but also from reading her feminine energy. With this project more than another other, I’ve been aware of both its feminine inspiration and the presence of the women who are playing it. We have three women in the band and outnumber the guys! They say women don’t listen to jazz. When it’s inspired by women, played by women, with themes that might appeal to women, maybe women will listen.
Jane Ira Bloom performs with Kent McLagan at St. Paul’s German Lutheran Church on Nov. 17 at 7:30pm; stpaulny.org