Words — spoken and unspoken, lyrical and free-flowing — are the focus of "Old Songs/New Songs," an eclectic evening of poetry and live music scheduled at The Lyceum on Sept. 29th.
The show is split up into two sections: "Old Songs," featuring musicians Mark Jickling and Chris Mason, sets archaic Greek poetry to American roots music; "New Songs," featuring the duo Eigenvalues, uses found text, instrumental and electronic music to create a novel form of poetry.
The event is the first in a number of planned poetry-performance nights sponsored by the Alexandria Performing Arts Association and produced by the Yockadot Poetics Theatre Project, according to Magus Magnus, the project’s director. The APAA’s Lyceum series is leading up to the Yockadot Poetics festival, scheduled for April and May 2007. Visit YPTfest.org for more information.
The Lyceum is located at 201 S. Washington St. The event, which begins at 7 p.m., is free of charge.
THE "OLD SONGS" portion of the show pairs what might, on the surface, appear to be radically different concepts: Greek poetry from the 4th to the 7th Century BC, and folk/blues music reminiscent of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly.
Chris Mason said the two genres are actually a timeless match.
"There’s a lot of poetry from that time that shows that rural side of life," he said.
The Greek poets weren’t necessarily farmers, but life during that time could be considered rural. They share a background with many of the Delta blues musicians that influence the band.
Listening to the lyrics of a poem by Sappho (610 BC), that connection is easily made: lines about sheep and goats going out to pasture and the family returning together upon sight of the evening star wouldn’t be out of place in a traditional American folk song.
Mason said he and partner Mark Jickling — a bassist/guitarist for the seminal punk band Half Japanese — have been putting these poems to "old timey" music for the last four years.
The results are stirring: classic poetry harmonized over roots guitar licks, banjo strums and delicate mandolin.
"We really love the poems, and we’re trying to have fun putting them to music," said Mason, who said vocalist Liz Downing and fiddle player Rebby Sharp will also appear at The Lyceum.
Samples of the music and information about the band can be found at http://home.mindspring.com/~oldsongs.
CAMERON MCPHEE said the "New Songs" portion of the show, featuring her group Eigenvalues, explores the intersection of text and music. "What happens when you put text with music, but not in a lyrical way?"
McPhee has a theater background. Her partner, Jonathan Matis, is a guitarist, plays the clarinet, and was trained in both free jazz and classical composition.
The group builds many of its performances around "found text," putting seemingly random passages from newspapers and other published works to music; and, in some cases, using them as the music.
"It’s sort of an eclectic mix of pieces," said McPhee. "Some of them involve words that wouldn’t make any sense standing alone, and some of them have a text to them where if you didn’t have music with them it would still have some meaning."
For example, the McPhee said the duo will use excerpts from the Washington City Paper’s "I Saw You" ads during their performance at The Lyceum. The ads feature readers who are trying to connect with strangers with whom they spent a fleeting moment or shared a short glance.
"They’re funny but they’re lonely. Everyone looks at them and wonders, ‘Am I in there?’" said McPhee.
Once they have their text, they begin to apply different musical techniques to bring it to life. Some require simple instrumentation; others involve voice processing and replication on a computer.
"We’re not putting words to music in any traditional way," she said.
For more on Eigenvalues, visit http://www.myspace.com/eigenvalues.