Local musician digitizes the music of poetry

WORK IN PROGRESS: “Even the failures are interesting,” says Jim Garner, who launched his Poetry DNA project using Ableton Live software to create musical compositions from spoken-word tracks. “I know it’s not for everybody, but for the open ear that can recognize the human and the technological component, it can be a good thing.” Photo by Nancy Alenier

Readers and writers of poetry are likely to agree that verse has an inherent sense of musicality. Even if there’s no obvious rhyme or meter, the form is rhythmic and, if not necessarily melodic, lyrical. Many poets and spoken-word artists have teamed with musicians (John Trudell, Andrea Gibson and Saul Williams, among them), but that entails a collaboration between writer and instrumentalist. What if the poem was able to compose its own accompanying soundtrack?

That question presented itself when local musician and educator Jim Gardner began working with Ableton Live, a software music sequencer and digital audio workstation. “I tried having students compose to a poem I had digitized the rhythm of,” he recalls. That initial experiment didn’t work so well, but, “It’s one of those ideas I kept coming back to.”

Formerly a high school teacher, Gardner wanted to use the program to interest those in his class at Asheville School in poetry. “A few students were immediately engaged and tapped into it and got it, and then there are others who are a little skeptical,” he remembers. Sometimes he’d play the music first and then explain the melody as derived from the rhythm of the poem before sharing the full, words-and-music final composition.

In Ableton Live, an audio file can be imported to the program, which produces a waveform. There’s an option to convert the file to melody, harmony or drums. Musical Instrument Digital Interface (aka midi) notes are derived from the original audio, to which sounds and virtual instruments can be applied. “It also analyzes the file for beats-per-minute and gives you a suggestion for that,” Gardner says. While the voice doesn’t always follow that pattern, “the program is easy to move and make adjustments so you can align things — [but] I try not to, if I’m working with someone else’s poem, move their rhythms.” He calls the resulting spoken-word-to-music project Poetry DNA.

“I’m a guitar player from way back,” says Gardner, an Asheville native, co-founder of independent music company a-tone and mastermind of the local alt-rock outfit Jr. James & The Late Guitar. “I’ve always liked electronic music but didn’t really follow it heavily.” His curiosity led him to get the software and learn how to use it.

Current selections on the Poetry DNA website, where Gardner shares his work, include “The Robot Scientist’s Daughter [Medical Wonder]” by Jeannine Hall Gailey — a jazz-flavored track with a prescient baseline and bright percussion. “The poem’s dramatic countdown begins with the second stanza,” Gardner explains online. “For a musical arrangement, this pivot suggested a change in tone, from the dissonant jazz chords of the first section to the more synthesized future body.”

Another offering, “The World Grows” by Tyree Daye, has an entirely different mood. Daye’s recitation is introspective and personal. The melody follows suit. “To my ear, the repetition of the word ‘once’ in the poem called forth chordal notes,” Gardner says in his notes about the track. The melancholy of the poem’s reflections on racism, paired with sweeter memories, are reckoned with in the musical composition. “Musical minor keys are not always made of unalloyed melancholy,” Gardner says.

The musician’s other motivation for launching Poetry DNA was to jump-start his own writing after a multiyear drought. He did pen some original poems, though perfection of the craft was never the goal. “Part of the idea is to mix quickly and share quickly,” he says of his tracks.

But it’s not all about immediacy. Thinking long term, “I’m hoping to get the skills to [make these compositions] live,” says Gardener. Ableton makes a 64-button controller “that lights up and is futuristic and is really fun to play. I think that’s really going to transform the way I approach Ableton.”

Though he’s older than, say, the average musician launching a creative endeavor, Gardner’s excitement about this electronic toolbox is palpable. “It’s a scientific approach,” he says. “Coming from a rock ’n’ roll background and listening to a lot of reggae, I’m just enthused about all these other ways of approaching the groove.”

He continues, “I don’t want to become Odysseus stuck on an island and say, ‘That was my music — the music of my high school years.’ There’s so much great music in every era. Why not be open to it? As a musician, I think you continually have to grow.”

Plus, even though Poetry DNA is a recent development, it’s already been met with appreciation. While Gardner met with some nonresponses when seeking permission to use the poetry of other writers, there have been some “friendly, affirmative, quick responses,” he says. For example, the publicist for the late Pulitzer Prize-winner William Carlos Williams wrote back within a day agreeing to the project — a resounding confirmation of Gardner’s hope to “make some discoveries along the way and make that available.”

If Poetry DNA didn’t dislodge Gardner’s writer’s block in exactly the way he hoped, he does say that the initiative informs his work with Jr. James & The Late Guitar — and it might have opened up yet another possibility in the musician’s own artistic trajectory. “I was a college DJ and now I’m just fascinated by the tools DJs have available in electronic dance music,” he says. “It’s like what Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Scientist and the dub creators did in Jamaica. They were working with 8-track tape. … If you saw how hard it was to sample something 30 years ago — now the sampling technology [is] at your fingertips.”

Learn more at poetrydna.com

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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