Reaching Out Through Collaboration: Interview with James Hall and Emily Ruth Hazel

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James Hall and Emily Ruth Hazel have worked together on a few spoken-word and jazz compositions in the last two years. I asked these two to do this interview ahead of their next installation of collaborative work that James presents Tuesday, June 25 at the International Arts Movement’s space at 38 W. 39th St, New York, New York 10018, beginning at 7 pm. (Facebook event is here.)

James Hall is an old friend of mine, and I’ve really enjoyed watching and listening as his unique artistic vision has developed. In the last two years James has been looking more and more to poetry and prose as a means to help him push his music in new directions, pairing an investigation into the pressing issues of faith with wide-ranging musical practices centering on jazz and classical music. His first effort in this vein was his “The Serpent Speaks,” a setting of poetry by Robert Siegel. You can learn about this project here.

A more recent, and very important, collaborator of James’ has been poet Emily Ruth Hazel, who I introduce after James only because I knew James first and met Emily only recently. Their work together is defined by an equal give and take, an equitable cross-pollination between artists from different backgrounds. Emily is a thoughtful and incisive poet, who values communication with a reading and listening audience on their terms as well as hers. You can see more of her work in Body and Soul, a collection of poems from 2005.

I wanted to interview this collaborative team on The Mouthpiece in order to show yet another example of how artists can cooperate to mutual benefit. From all the insights that James and Emily offer into their experience together, it seems obvious that their work together has been very rewarding, even if it was challenging at times. For a background of my thoughts on building community in the arts, please read this post. Since I launched my arts consultancy practice, my focus has been to arm artists of all disciplines with tools to make their arts practice more rewarding and sustainable both personally and financially, and building a supportive, robust and diverse community is central to this pursuit.

Finally, check out this recording of James and Emily’s first collaborative piece, “Of Blood and Water.” Its your choice to listen before or after reading. Enjoy the interview, and go see the performance if your in New York! 


Douglas Detrick: Let’s start off simply. How did your collaboration begin? Who initiated it, and why did you each want to enter into it?

James Hall: I don’t remember exactly, but I think that we were connected through Jonathon Roberts at Spark & Echo Arts. He mentioned that there was a poet looking to collaborate with a musician, and I followed up and checked out a reading Emily did in midtown Manhattan. From there, I started reading Emily’s work, and narrowing down the list of her poems that I wanted to set.

The motivation for setting poetry was partly selfish: to get me out of a compositional rut. The structure of poetry forces me out of my boring jazz AABA song forms. Plus, the poetic language can make the jazz harmonic vocabulary seem trite, so I’m forced to come up with new vertical structures.

Emily Ruth Hazel: Yes, actually, Emily Zempel at Spark & Echo Arts put us in touch. She and Jonathon Roberts had previously performed in James’ wonderfully complex jazz-and-spoken word interpretation of Robert Siegel’s poem “The Serpent Speaks,” and I had mentioned to them that I was interested in collaborating with musicians.

I’m a big believer in cross-pollinating with other artists. Both as an audience member and as a participant, it’s so interesting to experience interdisciplinary collaborations. As artists, the process challenges and stretches us, and the work that comes out of it develops in rich and unexpected ways. It’s also an exercise in giving up complete control—in trusting someone else’s gift and intuition. I think a good collaboration requires humility and a willingness to learn, to be out of one’s element. Another key element in a successful collaboration is a real respect for and care in handling (adapting, reinterpreting, and/or adding to) another artist’s work. I’m grateful for James’ interest in my writing and for his attentiveness to the language and spirit of my poems while taking them in new directions.

So far, all of the poems James has chosen to set happen to be from my short book of poetry, Body & Soul, which was published back in 2005. As artists and performers, it can sometimes be challenging to generate interest in and/or to keep up our own enthusiasm for earlier work that has been out in the world for awhile. I started exchanging with James in 2011 and his compositions have brought my words to life in completely new ways, which has been exciting for me.

By way of background, I think of myself as a kind of ambassador for poetry, because a lot of people are either intimidated by poetry or have no interest in it and see it as obscure and irrelevant. I’m passionate about making poetry more accessible and widening the audience for it. I’ve found that one way to do this is to move poetry from the page to the stage: hearing it makes it more personal and often more engaging. And one way of making a poetry performance more appealing to a wider demographic is to partner with musicians.

 

DD: Were the two of you able to “speak the same language” in terms of what you wanted to achieve together? Sometimes artists from different disciplines don’t know how to communicate at first.

ERH: While I am an enthusiastic music appreciator, I’ll be the first to admit that I have an undeveloped ear and virtually no musical training (yet). When I work with musicians, I often struggle to find the vocabulary to express what’s happening (or what I’d like to happen) musically. To me, writing is breathing—but music is magic. I have no idea how musicians do what they do, but it’s a privilege to be a part of it.

JH: Like Emily, I struggle with the vocabulary outside of my idiom of choice. Being a relative newbie to poetry, I have been asking questions like “Are line-breaks always deliberate?”, “What does blank space mean on a page of poetry?” and such. Fortunately Emily has been very open-minded about the process. I think our respective wonder at each other’s medium has made the products all the more adventurous. Emily never pulled me aside to give musical suggestions, and I allowed her performance and spacing to affect the music more literally than I think many composers do.

ERH: Although—the process was a little different when I performed my poem “In the Wake of the Storm,” accompanied by James on trombone and Evan Mazunik on keyboard, this past January at the Spark & Echo Arts LIVE! artist showcase event. Unlike our collaboration on “Of Blood and Water,” the musical element took the form of rehearsed improvisation, with simpler musical interludes (in lieu of natural pauses between sections of the poem) rather than a full composition with its own structure. So in that case, I did indicate places where I felt there should be musical interludes and suggested to James how long I thought they should be in relation to each other—we had very similar opinions on this—and sent him a vocal recording of the poem to give a sense of the feeling I was going for, then trusted him and Evan to match the tone.

DD: Could you give an examples of a struggles you had working together and how you solved them?

JH: Hm… Honestly the process has been very smooth. The only struggle has been scheduling I think! Finding time to get recorded recitations, or to plan events where we’re both available has been the trickiest part. As I said, Emily stayed out of the composing process, and I was not a part of the writing process, so it was really a hand-off. That takes trust, but it’s very freeing.

ERH: I agree—I think it’s often more challenging when two (or more) individuals or groups are co-creating a piece from scratch. And of course, having shared and clearly communicated expectations has a major impact on the success of any collaboration.

Bringing together artistic visions and styles is—I imagine—similar to a marriage (in a simplified, small-scale sense). Some people say it’s easier for two individuals to come together once they’re more mature and have a clear sense of what they need and want; others argue that it’s easier to merge if they’re younger and not as independently established. Artistically speaking, the poetry/music collaborations with James have been a little of both. The music was the more fluid element, newly created in response to the poems, which were already solidified. The poems knew more or less what they wanted to be, although some of their qualities changed, or were brought out more fully, in the fusion process.

I think I might have a harder time being open-handed about a collaboration if the written piece was more specifically tied to my personal experience, if I wasn’t convinced of my collaborator’s skill or commitment to quality, or if I didn’t feel that my collaborator really “got” the essence of what I was trying to convey. Fortunately, in the work I’ve done with James, none of those potential challenges have been an issue.

 

DD: Emily, you have been talking about being an ambassador for your medium, and I’m wondering if you can say more about how doing this collaboration has furthered that goal? Does music pick up where poetry leaves off? Or vice versa?

JH: It’s funny that Emily mentions this, because I have similar goals in working with her. I had been writing instrumental music for years, but had never put words to music, and thought that it would be a good way to engage the audience more. So I guess both of us are happy to be reaching new audiences and engaging them more by collaborating.

I wouldn’t say that the music picks up where poetry leaves off, but rather that the music is a new kind of vehicle for the content that Emily has written. Like putting the same skilled driver behind the wheel of a different car. The engine growls differently, but the answer to the question “Who finished the race?” is the same: both the driver and the vehicle. Both Jimmy Johnson and his Chevrolet. (I had to look that up.)

ERH: A different kind of vehicle—that’s a great metaphor! That said, I do think poetry and music each have certain strengths and limitations. They overlap, but there are also ways each goes beyond the other. Both unaccompanied words and instrumental music can convey beauty and darkness, can stir a sense of hope, can deliver surprises and even humor. Both can be very evocative and can leave room for interpretation. But in my mind (others may experience it differently), music relies on words in order for the abstract to become narrative.

While individual words and the way they are put together can have a rhythm and musicality of their own, music has a natural accessibility that transcends language. It still has the power to grab and engage people in a world that is saturated with verbal overdose (from ads to public announcements to escalators that tell you repeatedly to “have a nice day”) so much that we block it out. For many people, it’s music that catches their emotional attention and draws them back into appreciating words. When there’s music in the mix, it often helps people tune in more to spoken poetry as well as lyrics.

DD: It seems like both sound and meaning have a nearly equal weight in the poetry, as well as in the way you read the words, Emily. 

ERH: As a poet, I focus first on the nuances of meaning that words carry. Then, as I’m writing and revising, I read lines aloud and listen to how the words sound, individually and together—deciding whether the sound of a word matches the meaning in that specific context, playing off the sounds of other words, and paying attention to the rhythm of phrases. In performing a finished piece, my goal is to recite the words expressively, in a way that fits the feeling and tone of the poem.

When I began collaborating with James, I was surprised by what his musician’s ear picked up on in my natural vocal patterns. He noticed things about the way I read my poems that were often unconscious. When he told me he wanted to try composing music that would actually use the cadence of my spoken words as a melody, I was intrigued. The way he’s been able to imitate, translate, and riff off of those rhythms has given me a greater appreciation for the natural musicality of language and of the human voice.

 

DD: James, you use the technique of “speech melody” quite a lot in your recent music for jazz groups and recorded voice. What is this technique and what about it is interesting to you?

JH: The technique involves transcribing the spoken word, syllable by syllable, to create a melody. I first heard the technique in the music of Hermeto Pascoal, who used it to set Mario Lago’s “Três coisas.” Henrey Hey has also used it to parody a speech of George W. Bush’s.

The trick with this technique is to not make it sound schticky. The first of Emily’s poems that I set in this way (Of Blood and Water) used her recorded voice as the melody. I liked the result, but the technological needs of live performance were cumbersome. We needed a good sound system with lots of monitors to enable us to sync up with the recording. That’s why I took the next step and notated the spoken melody, and had a singer learn it for my recent setting of Emily’s “Free Country,” which will receive its second performance at the event we’re hosting on Tuesday at International Arts Movement.

I find the technique interesting because it forces me out of my compositional habits. Left to my own devices, I tend to compose very Kenny Wheeler-esque modal melodies, but the prevalence of half steps and irregular leaps in these spoken melodies don’t allow for that sort of thing most of the time, so I have to adjust my approach.

 

DD: I’ve been writing and talking about the idea of “community” in the arts as a vehicle for advancing one’s own work while he or she helps advance the work of other artists. How do the two of you feel about this idea? In what ways was your collaboration mutually beneficial beyond the artistic goals?

JH: I have strong feelings about the word “community.” It’s a much different word than “network.” Many New Yorkers mistake the latter for the former, which is one reason they struggle emotionally in the city. I would call the New York jazz scene a network, for example, but the constellation of artists connected through Spark & Echo Arts and International Arts Movement a community. Off the top of my head, here are a couple things that distinguish a community from a network:

  1. Members of a community are interested in contributing to one another’s goals, while members of a network are interested in personal advancement.
  2. Members of a community are more deeply involved in each other’s lives. They may not agree philosophically, but they know each other’s opinions and seek to understand them better. They are more likely to know each other’s families and personal histories.

So interdependence, or symbiosis, and depth, to summarize. My collaboration with Emily is part of the aforementioned larger community, and my work has benefitted in many ways. I’ve been featured in concerts and events, met artistic collaborators, built my audience, and even made a little bit of money. But I’ve also contributed to the community: I’ve volunteered at events, served on a board, and presented and funded other people’s art. So symbiosis is there. But there’s also depth. Emily and I have become close friends, have had long talks about art and creativity, and as this interview makes apparent, we share a lot of convictions about what success and quality mean as artists in New York City.

ERH: James makes an interesting—and insightful—distinction between community and networking. While I used to be really uncomfortable with the idea of “networking,” I’ve since learned that it doesn’t necessarily have to be a dirty word or purely self-serving. Still, I agree that cultivating a more community-minded perspective radically can change the way we approach others, our work, and our lives in general. I love James’ image of creating “constellations” of people who we know in a more holistic way. I guess the opposite could be simply looking at contacts as stepping stones that can lead us to where we want to be.

One danger I’ve discovered is that sometimes passion for our own dreams or concerns about our financial needs can cause us to become a little self-absorbed. And yet, one of the many things I appreciate about artists is that we do often look out for each other, because we have similar goals and understand the economic challenges particular to artists.

My hope is that we as creatives will even take it a step farther than the direct reciprocity mentality (“If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”) to a broader vision of contributing to a larger community cause. Being able to look beyond our own agendas and take a genuine interest in others’ work—that’s what sparks artistic community.

Community is born when we seek not only to discover common ground/shared connections but also to exchange—to be both teachable and generous. It’s seeing each person you encounter as someone from whom you can learn something, and at the same time offering that person something of yourself. It’s supporting each other in various ways—whether by attending events at which artists are presenting their work; by offering an honest, no-strings-attached compliment or a word of encouragement; by passing along resources and leads; or by hiring artists, purchasing their work, or recommending them to others.

As far as some of the benefits I’ve experienced through artistic community and collaboration—I’ve connected with new people, reconnected with others, and been exposed to a lot of art that I may not have encountered otherwise (often very different from my own), which has expanded my thinking and has many times inspired me. I’ve also served as a curator: as a creative entrepreneur, the next best thing to having someone take an interest in my work and offer me a paid opportunity to create and/or perform is being in the mutually empowering position to do that for a fellow artist.

 

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