KR BlogBlog

Interview with Jacob Cooper

“The first composer / could hear only what he could write,” reads the entirety of W.S. Merwin’s “Memory of Spring.” Anyone who has labored alone to make a thing might recognize the poem’s hard blessing: it evokes a sovereign isolation in which anything is possible, and so everything is only possible.

Collaboration, like translation, helps turn the possible into an art of exchange, not of creation ex nihilo between grading papers, seeing who liked my blog post, how about some more coffee, can I call this doodle a poem; and so I was glad when composer Jacob Cooper asked me to contribute text to his Silver Threads song cycle, the album of which is just out from the estimable Nonesuch Records. Cooper also worked with poets Kristin Kelly, Dora Malech, Greg Alan Brownderville, and Tarfia Faizullah; each of us provided a “reaction” to a poem attributed to Bashō. (Two of those texts are available online at Grantaand you can listen to one track from the album here.)

Silver Threads has already been named a Q2 Music Album of the Week at WQXR, which praised the “versatile, virtuosic” performance of soprano Mellissa Hughes in Cooper’s plangent electronic score. I look forward to sharing it with friends and students who are interested in poetry’s intersections with adventurous contemporary music.

To explore those intersections, Jacob and I recently corresponded about collaboration, “sympathetic resonance,” and the extra-human. If you are in New York City, I encourage you to attend the Silver Threads release performance at (le) poisson rouge on May 7.

Zach Savich: You’ve composed music for texts before. What was different about Silver Threads?

Jacob Cooper: The way it usually works in a “classical” song is that the poem exists first, and then the composer sets it to music. He/she might drop a line, or even a stanza, here and there, but there’s really no way to create text in a collaborative way or customize it at all. And that’s the way I had mostly worked before. But I was spoiled working with the Silver Threads poets because they would develop the poems from scratch while I composed the music, and we’d shape each other’s work throughout the process. In this sense, it was almost more like a lyricist-songwriter collaboration.

ZS: How did this process change the music?

JC: To give one example, I knew that I wanted the last piece, “Jar,” to act like a coda, to tie everything together. So I asked Greg to read the poems that had existed up to that point and write a few lines that looked back on it all in some way. I already had a general sense of the sounds I would use in the piece before I saw any words from him, but after reading his first draft, I was inspired to linger on some of the words much longer. And even though I’m generally not one to “word-paint” much in my music, I added in some sounds that are faintly reminiscent of the illusionary “stars” he describes.

ZS: Elsewhere, the music is less referential. In these pieces, what interests you about the interplay between musical meaning and linguistic meaning?

JC: Yeah there’s usually a much broader association between them—I think of it more like there’s a sympathetic resonance between the music and the text, that they naturally coexist in the same world. In “Fame,” for example, there are all these glitchy sounds that give the impression of the world—the actual physical world—crashing down, being smashed to pieces, around the singer, and she’s singing about a relationship that has totally destroyed her life. Though she does make the distinction that destruction in nature is “encored” by beauty, while humans aren’t so lucky.

And in your piece, “Antique Windfall,” I remember one of the initial sketches you sent ended with the line “and the earth grew tuned / so a certain chord / is always nearly playing.” And I loved the way that stepped back from all the more detailed descriptions to talk about the world as a whole. It seemed like it was so much in its own realm that it wanted to be repeated like a mantra, in its own section of music—extensive and offset, but smoothly emerging out of what came earlier. I think it’s the only time I repeat text, other than the verse/chorus layout of “Wefted Histories.”

ZS: This “sympathetic resonance” often depends on Mellissa’s Hughes’ ability to move deftly among modes: some lines narrate, some dramatize, some dismantle language or leave it behind. I loved constructing a text for your music and then hearing both elements—text and music—transform through her performance. Did the pieces change as you worked with Mellissa?

JC: Definitely. I’ve collaborated with Mellissa for about a decade now, so I have a pretty good sense of her voice, but I workshopped each piece with her before completing it, and I’d always get new ideas from that. My original version of “Unspun,” for example, didn’t have the backing vocals in the later verses, and I think at that point in its gestation the piece got a bit tiresome by the end. But while workshopping it we experimented with creating harmonies through additional voices—that may even have been her idea—and I think these backing voices really refine the form and allow the song to go on as long as it does without getting stale.

ZS: Has completing Silver Threads influenced your thinking about collaboration? Are there other collaborative projects you’d like to try?

JC: Collaboration has always been a significant part of my creative life. I get sick of working in just one medium, and sometimes I’ve experimented with other stuff myself—like video art—but it’s of course always great to work with people who can bring a different kind of expertise to a project. Silver Threads was unique for me, though, in how I worked with a different poet for each song, so ultimately there were five different voices and perspectives (six if you include Bashō) in addition to mine.

I think this multiplicity of voices helps the album succeed artistically, creating a sort of web of connections between the works, rather than linear ones. I’d love to use this sort of structure down the road, but also realize that it won’t always work. There’s something about the Bashō haiku—probably that it’s concise, old, extra-human—that made it a great seed for this type of collaboration.