Wedded Brainwaves: An Interview with Collaborators Ambrose Bye and Anne Waldman
Anne Waldman: "Remember Qana" is a version of part of The Iovis Trilogy (Coffee House Press, 2011) from Book III, section or canto XXIII: "Problem-Not-Solving." And there are also some lines in the recorded version from a piece entitled Cry Stall Gaze, a collaboration with painter Pat Steir. We recorded these vocals in both Ambrose's little studio at Macdougal Street and possibly some earlier in San Francisco. Ambrose tends to edit, arrange later as he listens, and matches the text with his musical ideas. There were several vocal takes, and I felt inspired in my range of vocalization…the way, for example, "marginalia!" is conveyed in a sprechstimme mode, or "in the ground in the ground in the ground of…"—this lyrical foray. I wanted this piece to have emotional power, complexity, so I was very supportive of the direction and the multi-layering of the vocals parts, the overlappings, the pentimento effect, and call and response as well, the kind of swell that happens, yet returning to the base refrain: remember Qana. I was thinking of the massacre in Beirut and the reference to Biblical Qana. I was listening at one point also to an early version of the music with headphones on and recorded off that that way as well. Ambrose's editing can get very detailed and fastidious. But I always want to give an energetic, intelligent rendering of the text.
"Radial Symmetry of the Younger Sister"—parts of which surface in Iovis as well and comes out of a performance with a dancer originally—had the distinct numbered phrases, an odd list of qualities, characteristics in the mind of an altered universe, which I think influenced this particular musical soundscape. Its form is generated around the structure of numbers, which the music drives. The snare drum, which sounds like a whiplash to me. The sampling of George Bush's voice saying "Please be seated" originally threw me off, and I agonized over whether or not it should be included. The opening salvo has a sort of "call-to order" effect. Called to order to what? I love the ambience and sensuousness of the performance here.
Anne Waldman and Ambrose Bye. Photo copyright Sunfrog, 2010. Used with permission.
Ambrose Bye: I recorded the vocals for "Radial Symmetry" at the Pyramind Studio in San Francisco where I was studying at the time. I was going off the tempo of the reading and matching it to a musical frame I was already making. The tempo and the rhythms of the reading matched the music. "Qana" is a bit different. I manipulated the music and the voice much more. In a way, "Radial Symmetry" is more of a super-imposition and "Qana" a collage. I was cutting up the two pieces of vocal text for "Qana" in a way that they became one piece that was entirely different from the two separate texts and performances. And there's attention to the beats and the vocal emphasis on particular words (which I also edit). Typically when people are putting poetry with music it tends to rhyme (like hip hop). But this is not about rhyming, the text is not consistent in that way. So I'm finding other ways to have the cadence—and have a cadence with the illusion of rhyming perhaps. I can manipulate the voice in time (as well as the sounds), manipulate the space between words and it flows in the piece. I was also panning Anne's voice from left to right, playing off the two texts. There was more mixing in this piece.
AW: What about the semantics? The ideas behind the words. You've heard me talk about melopoeia, phanopoeia, and logopoeia. You are the melopoeia.
AB: I work more intuitively, not so conceptually. But there is an emotional tone. I already had the Presidential Mission Accomplished music and Bush's voice, and this is kind of random but it matched up with the text. It's spontaneous in a way, what works. I'll try something a few times and if it doesn't come together I won't keep going on it. But the point is that we already had something going independently with "Radial Symmetry," and with "Qana" it was a much more complex process.
AW: But the final version is quite different form the original, much longer, text, although I think it carries even greater emotional weight.
LW: In 2009, a group of researchers found that guitar duos synched brainwaves while they played together. [You can see a write-up of the study here and the full research paper here.] I'm wondering if the two of you feel like you have that kind of synchronization during your collaborations. Can you feel some kind of resonant connection? If so, at what moments? Can you describe how it feels? If you think you don't have that kind of experience, can you hypothesize why not?
Anne Waldman. Photo copyright Jerry Aronson, 2011. Used with permission.
AW: Yes, I experience this synchronization quite strongly at times. And particularly in live performance. Parts of the "Manatee/Humanity" suite (from my book of the same title, published by Penguin Poets in 2009) seem to work in this way.
I think the anaphoric litany section with the recording of the manatee song, and with Ambrose's own vocals at the end actualize this magic of wedded brain waves, and when Ambrose would do this live, I felt called to respond in kind. And the poem is talking about the Manatee's mother's relationship to her "just one manatee offspring," which has particular relevance here to our mother/son relationship. And it can happen in the studio process as well, recording, trying things out…when the minds meet in the actualizing of both language and sound.
AB: I would agree it happens in the live performance.
AW: Brion Gysin, friend and collaborator of William Burroughs, developed his Dream Machine, which worked with a communal synchronization around light and sound. There's the communal thrum with drumming, and the way a spiritual guide or shaman can synchronize with vocal.
I saw the graphs of the guitarists' brainwaves in sync and am not surprised. It makes neurobiological sense. I find if I am involved in a group reading of some kind—where we are all reading "Ode To The West Wind" together ( as we did regularly in the early days of the Kerouac School at Naropa) or in some of the work with Gertrude Stein in concert with others, her compelling rhythms seem to create a heightened communitas.
LW: How did the two of you start working together?
AW: Ambrose grew up in the environment of The Jack Kerouac School at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, a program I co-founded with Allen Ginsberg in 1974. He heard poetry read aloud from a very early age—his whole life, in fact. And his father Reed Bye is also a poet.
He even read one of his own pieces at a reading with Amiri Baraka when he was 11 years old.
We also lived in Bali together and played in a gamelan orchestra when I worked with Naropa's study abroad program in Indonesia. Ambrose was 8 years old the first time, then again he participated in the program his final semester of high school. I understood his musical gifts as a child. His father had started piano lessons for him as well. We were also in the Naropa gamelan together, with his father as well.
I joke that he heard poetry in the womb, and the connection started there. Yet music was his more natural path. In this kind of work he does with me he is responding to and providing an environment for language and the performance of it, and for the nuances of my vocalization. Not simply providing an accompaniment for "spoken word," but creating a fully realized soundscape. Which may incorporate other musicians and sounds as well.
There's a CD included with my book In the Room of Never Grieve, with Ambrose's music and my text and vocalizations, which came out in 2003, so it's been over a decade of varying work and collaborations. We started performing and travelling together more regularly about three years ago. And we teach writing and recording workshops together—at Naropa, New England College, and this past year at the Poetry Project at St. Marks Church. We're both in New York these days, so it's easier to collaborate and rehearse. It seemed natural to work with my own son, for whose work I have great admiration and respect.
AB: Anne would send tapes of her poetry when I was in Santa Cruz, where I went to College (UC Santa Cruz), and I would match them up with the music I was doing with my friends there. I was starting to be interested in making and producing music. So it was around 2000/ 2001. I had bought a digital 8-track in Boulder. So I was playing around with the music and the poetry. It was when I started using computers and learning more about them that it really started.
LW: You all have made four albums together. Can you describe how your collaborative experience has evolved over time?
AB: The work evolved essentially through advances in the technology with digital recording and having the personal situation of a studio in my own living space. And being able to record— having editing control and making the CDs ourselves. Being able to mix and master from home. The technology—computer programs—have come a long way in the last 10 years. Usually you'd need the capacity of a huge recording studio. Now you can do it by hand, it's a lot more friendly economically.
AW: From my perspective, it's deepened and grown, I think. Some of the pieces on "The Milk of Universal Kindness" have a new complexity and layering. I have so many ideas for our collaborations all the time. And Ambrose is also producing new work pieces like my lament for Akilah Oliver, with vocals by myself and Tracie Morris. He's recently been recording me with the very wonderful and accomplished sax and trumpet player Daniel Carter, and then shaping the final scape. We have a new 25-minute piece from the book Soldatesque/Soldiering (with artist Noah Saterstrom, Blaze Vox, 2011) that's very sustained.
LW: How does your work with one another influence your other creative endeavors?
AB: I grew up in a poetry/ artistic community and had the opportunity to meet and was exposed to a lot of interesting people and their work. Anne and jazz musician Daniel Carter had played together some years back, but they wouldn't have recorded and reconnected in this way if I hadn't met with him more recently (Daniel was playing with Thurston Moore at a gallery we were also playing). And the influence for projects is coming from this larger pool I can draw/fish from. Lyrics for music can be really bad; there's more substance coming from the poetry world where people take pride in their writing—it's not a commercial venture. Not asinine stuff! The work can stand by itself. More verbal substance than much hip hop, pop, rock. I'm also helping produce other poets, a project with Kristin Prevallet.
AW: As I said, I am constantly having new ideas as a result of my work with Ambrose. I am learning things about the studio process and what's possible in sound recording. How the range is endless. And how I can play with my own vocal imagination in a liberated way. He also helped with sound effects for another project with musician/composer Steven Taylor, my Naropa colleague of many years who also worked extensively with Allen Ginsberg. Steven and I have created a 2-act opera entitled Cyborg on the Zattere, which takes on the "knot" of Ezra Pound. His brilliant poetry and terrible politics. Ambrose has some studio training, which is very helpful in these kinds of endeavors, and he's started to record some of the individual pieces with Steven.
Ambrose is also accompanying me on acoustic guitar and piano with some of the work in live performance, and we are starting to record some of those pieces as well, like "Prisons of Egypt" sung to the melody of "Go Down, Moses."
LW: Do you ever experience a form of writers' block together, and if so, what do you do to get out of it?
AW: I think that's rarely the case, as I am so project-oriented and work frequently in collaboration. So sometimes the demand of the "other" pulls me along. I always need more time, more writing retreat time. I get involved with too many infrastructure projects—creating the summer program at Naropa that can be extremely demanding.
LW: Can you all talk about the differences between collaborating with one another, given your close bond, and collaborating with people you didn't grow up with/birth and raise?
AB: I can't be as brutally hard and honest with others as I can with Anne. If we're working closely together on the full process—with our particular forms—the "soundscapes"—the original material, the recording, editing in our own home; it's a different dynamic. The way we can talk with each other given this context is totally different, and there's a lifelong frame of reference.
But also we spend more time on this than the way Anne might improvise live with other musicians.
AW: There's always mutual respect and the need to really listen to the other, in collaboration, whatever the relationship. Ambrose and I might struggle a little harder together, and we can squabble about things more vocally, and yes there's a personal dynamic that can be more dramatic.
My collaboration with artist Pat Steir is also a give-and-take, yet our respective realms seem more distinct. With music and poetry, I share the music through my own voice as a participating instrument.
LW: If you would consider collaboration as a part of your value system or ethics or a part of your spiritual practice, could you explain the connection? Would you talk about a time outside of your artistic practice where collaboration plays a part in your values, ethics, or spiritual practice?
AB: But things were "actualized" at a young age for Anne in terms of collaboration, it's part of the backbone of her whole artistic life. A heightened sense of artistic community. From her early days with the New York School, collaborations with artists like George Schneeman and Joe Brainard, the Beats. The Kerouac School and a 25-year work like The Iovis Trilogy, which includes so much documentation of others.
AW: Collaboration is a way to be with "other," to be in a symbiotic, sympathetic relationship with the pulse and mental stream of another sentient being. And to have to keep listening to their sound and/or looking at the shape and color and contours of the visual work. But there has to be an affinity artistically. Community-building is an artistic practice as well.
The Sanskrit word used for spiritual communities is "sangha."
And then there's the notion of trying to create a more spiritually enlightened and just society. I find the Occupy movement particularly inspiring because you can bring your own talent into the field of action rather than wait to belong to the club or face a certain hierarchy.
LW: Anne, would you consider your book Manatee/Humanity to be a collaboration of sorts? Why or why not?
AW: Well, it's an inter-species investigative project that incorporates some very vivid dreams, and also a Buddhist ritual/initiation (the Kalachakra) as well as the most important aspect of this narrative—the life of the manatee. And my encounter with a living, endangered manatee triggered the poem.
It was a vow to the life of this particular manatee that created the work. And the 45-minute "suite" Ambrose worked on was an extension of that original impulse. (We haven't put together and recorded the entire piece as yet.) Basically, the written part was a hermetic process of about three years. Excerpt for the litany section and an early version of the closing "Eye of the Falcon," I didn't publish or read from the work until it was finished. Our mind in the world is always a challenging intense collaboration.
© 2012 Anne Waldman, Ambrose Bye, Fast Speaking Music.
Website: Fast Speaking Music
List of projects with Anne Waldman & Ambrose Bye
In the Room of Never Grieve, Coffee House Press, Book and CD, 2003
The Eye of The Falcon, Fast Speaking Music, 2006
Matching Half (with Akilah Oliver), Fast Speaking Music, 2008
The Milk of Universal Kindness, Fast Speaking Music, 2011
Akilah (Limited Edition), with AW, Tracie Morris, Akilah Oliver, Tyler Burba, Ambrose Bye, Fast Speaking Music, Belladonna, 2011
Going Vocal, workshop from the Jack Kerouac School Summer Writing Program, Naropa University, 2011
New Festival of Rhizomes & Wraiths, from the Poetry Project workshop, NYC, 2011
Books by Anne Waldman referenced in this interview
Manatee/Humanity, Penguin Poets, 2009
The Iovis Trilogy: Colors in the Mechanism of Concealment, Coffee House Press, 2011
Soldatesque/Soldiering (visual by Noah Saterstrom), Blaze [VOX], 2011
Ambrose Bye—musician (piano/keyboard, guitar, voice), composer, producer—grew up in the environment of The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, counting Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs as "poetic" godfathers. He graduated from The University of California Santa Cruz with a degree in music/sociology and was certified at the music /production program at the Pyramind Institute in San Francisco, working on numerous productions and his own compositions as well. He also studied and played in gamelan orchestras in Bali, Indonesia, Boulder, and Santa Cruz. He has performed on stage a number of times, accompanying poets and performers at New York's Issue Project Room, The Poetry Project, The Bowery Poetry Club, KGB Bar, at The Boulder Theatre's "Music and Poetry for Progressives" headlined by Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, Naropa University, The New School, White Columns Gallery, and San Francisco's Meridian Gallery. Recent performances include The Sidewalk Café, The New Museum, The Peter Orlovsky Memorial at The Poetry Project, Old Dominion University, and the Voix d'Americain festival in Montreal. He taught a poetry & performance workshop at New England College with Anne Waldman, at New England College's MFA session, January 2011. Other recent performances were in Vicenza and Milan, and Maelstrom's fiEstival of Brussels. Recording work includes the CD Matching Half, with Anne Waldman and Akilah Oliver, which was produced by Farfalla, McMillen, Parrish. His previous composing/ production credits include In the Room of Never Grieve, (produced by Coffee House Press) and The Eye of the Falcon (Farfalla, McMillen, Parrish) with poetry by Anne Waldman. His music accompanies the video "The Wake-Up Call of a Poet," produced by the Buddhist Broadcasting Foundation, the Netherlands, and was broadcast over Dutch TV in December 2009. He is the composer and producer on a new CD with Anne Waldman entitled The Milk of Universal Kindness, released by Fast Speaking Music in 2011. He has taught "Going Vocal" workshops with Anne Waldman at Naropa University's Summer Writing Program, New England College, and The Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church in NYC. He has produced four albums with Anne Waldman: In the Room of Never Grieve, The Eye of the Falcon, Matching Half, and The Milk of Universal Kindness.