Eno collaborator/poet Rick Holland corresponds on craft – An Indie Ethos exclusive (Part 1 of 2)
September 5, 2011
A couple of months ago, I sent poet Rick Holland a link to my post sharing my excitement about the results of his participation with Brian Eno, Drums Between the Bells (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the limited edition on Amazon). He wrote back graciously expressing his appreciation for my “kind words.” He also said he would pass my email on to Warp Records, as I had expressed an interest in an advance listen of the album.* Though that did not happen, I stayed in touch with Holland for a profile piece on “Independent Ethos,” the results of which are now ready for posting in this multi-part interview series.
Holland identifies himself as “Rick” as the sender in email correspondence. It’s a nice detail that offers an appropriate gateway to understanding the young man (he’s 32) who wrote the lyrics of “The Real:”
you really seem to see the real
the exact and actual reality
of the real in things you seem to see
And that is only a taste of the mind-bending words Holland explores in “the Real.” The song opens with the crystal clean voice of 22-year-old Elisha Mudly. Like many of the participants on Drums Between the Bells, the “vocalists” are not rock stars (though some of the reading was done by Eno). Mudly is a drama/psychology student and dancer who had worked for Eno “around the studio, sorting stuff etc.,” she told me via Facebook. “Brian and Rick were working on this project and they just asked if I’d like to read something quickly. So, had some tea, read some poetry and then we said goodbye,” she explained (as the interview with Holland continues below, he emphasizes the serendipitous appearance of Mudly in the studio, as a happy coincidence that resulted in the smooth recording of that track).
On “the Real,” Mudly reads with quiet, ethereal purpose as ambient drones swell and recede, like the wash of waves on the sea shore, beneath her voice. Taking the words to a whole other brilliant level, the bed of drones continue as the words are repeated. This time, however, Eno slows down Mudly’s voice a notch and decorates it with a shimmering vocoder effect, repeating the words exactly as before… but not. The implications of the words and Eno’s use of them reveals a brilliant creative connection between the two artists.
Holland’s awareness of the subjective quality of perceptions seemed to reveal an intellect that would indeed find a kinship with the mind of a thinking musician like Eno. In an interview with Michael Engelbrecht on the Germany-based blog, Manafonistas, Holland described a true collaborative relationship with Eno, when he described an instance when he requested a certain “sound” from the music: “I do offer musical ideas and also extremely vague and over-reaching requests: ‘Can you make this part sound more like primordial sludge, Brian?’ That kind of thing. Of course, his answers tend to be, ‘Yes, yes, I can.’”
Holland’s own direction to Eno sounds just like the sort of language Eno would understand well, as abstract as it might sound. Eno is the guy who devised the Oblique Strategies card set with painter Peter Schmidt in the early seventies with similar sorts of directions, if sometimes even more obtuse (Read all about Oblique Strategies).
I wanted to know more about their album, Drums Between the Bells, which has easily grown into one of my favorite Eno albums in many years, and I do consider it among the best albums I have heard this year. Though Holland is certainly in the shadows next to a man often called the pioneer of ambient music and known as the producer of U2’s and Coldplay’s highest regarded albums, Holland’s contributions of words to Drums Between the Bells is key to elevating this work to a higher level. Just as earlier Eno collaborations, like Fourth World Vol. 1 – Possible Musics, would have never been the same without Jon Hassell’s trumpet or Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror without Harold Budd’s piano, Drums would have never floated to its otherworldly quality without the words of Holland (an instrumental-only second disc in the deluxe version of this album provides the bare evidence of this).
I wanted to ask him about working with Eno and how the collaboration worked. The problem was I live in Miami and Holland splits up his time in London and Dorset, England, so long distance would be rough on either of us struggling writers. I had done email interviews in the past (Read one I did with Melt Banana here), so I was wary (Melt Banana, being Japanese noise surrealists provided perfect answers in their own quirky way, but I was really hoping for some deep insight from Holland on working with Eno). When he told me he would write out my questions to respond via notebook and then write them again in an email, I knew I would be in for some interesting, thoughtful responses. So allow me to begin the interview with that: Why would Holland go through such trouble to respond to my questions…
After I explained my own experience with the effect of writing longhand and then re-writing in a computer (the process alone seems akin to writing as many as three drafts before coming up with a finalized piece), Holland wrote back the following:
Definitely of the school of rewriting … I have come full cycle back to notebooks, having started with pieces of paper.
I think writing by hand, poetry or lyric-wise and probably longer pieces or articles too, is the best approach in the early stages. The closest I have come to the same effect electronically is by emailing myself repeatedly. Write ‘poem’, email it to self, redraft on first reading, email it to self, fiddle, email it to self, go to bed, read it and email to self. Continue process to finish or abandonment. This approach allows the same kind of overall approach that doesn’t cripple the piece in self-analysis but does allow small and important changes to feed into the work without too much head-scratching or too many changes at once.
The temptation to edit while you write is too strong on a word processor of any kind, I find. Now, if I have a eureka moment (very rare at a computer anyway) I write it in my notebook if I have it– I usually carry it around everywhere– or on a piece of paper, or increasingly as a ‘draft’ on my mobile phone. The trick is to remember to check the ‘drafts’ or look again at the notebook or transfer the scribble to notebook or computer. If I transfer it early to a computer and do the ‘email thing’ then it is likely to get finished. If I don’t, then it may re-emerge as something quite different in the future.
This is what I started my blog [rickholland's posterous] for as well actually (see you have got me started now) : a live notebook, to air ideas and return to them. Because they are in a public place, it probably means my vanity will make me check back over them more than I would do in a paper notebook. This is no bad thing, as I tweak them online, and consumer behaviour (I think) doesn’t really pay much attention to old blog entries anyway, so the effect really is only that of an evolving notebook. I have conditioned myself to ‘post’ things on there in their imperfect state, which is against our instincts, and sometimes they remain just fine as imperfects… another ‘condition’ is to only post things that I am genuinely working on at the time or am finding interesting and learning about.
I thought that email was a candid response that offered an intimate glimpse into how this young poet works and how seriously he takes the significance of words.
In an interview on aqnb, Holland noted he has actually known Eno as far back as 10 years ago, when Eno happened on Holland’s debut poetry performance with musical accompaniment. “It was at my first show with the Guildhall School of Music and the Royal College of Art,” Holland said. “The short of it is we did this improvised music and poetry section for it. Brian was there and I met him after.” Holland went on to explain that beyond some experiments with Eno, nothing resulted until only recently, which seemed to begin with something called “Speaker Flowers,” last year. It was Holland’s and Eno’s first “public performance,” which was really an art installation at Marlborough House, during the Brighton Art Festival, in May 2010. Eno was selected as artistic director that year. As the title of the project suggests, the installation included small speakers on stems jutting out of the ground and vases like floral arrangements. From these “speaker flowers” came the hum, whistle and drone of ambient music by Eno to the words of Holland. Someone actually shot part of it on what looks to be cellphone video:
Then came Holland’s first book of poems, Story the Flowers, which contains many of the poems– in slightly varying forms– that were part of “Speaker Flowers” became the words to the tracks on Drums Between the Bells (One can still purchase first edition, signed copies of the book direct from the poet on his website: rjholland.com). Any changes to the poems were subtle, Holland told me. So, with some of the history and context now of the album out of the way, take in a preview of every track on Drums:
… and now the beginning of my email interview with Holland:
Hans Morgenstern: Did Eno give you any parameters when composing the lyrics? Or did he give you any “Guidance”?
Rick Holland: No, he never gave me parameters for composing the lyrics, he either chose what most appealed to him or I suggested what I thought best ‘fitted’ the music he had started. There were occasions in the ‘sung’ material that he flagged difficult words ‘the elemental’ being replaced by ‘nature’s’ (from ‘Breath of Crows’) is an example that springs to mind. When treated as spoken, it was rarer for lexical changes to be needed but the ‘poem’ itself was repositioned in a musical world, and in that world it sometimes needed to change shape, which I was happy to experiment with in a way that a more traditional ‘poet’ may not have been.
Did these lyrics exist unto themselves as poems and the music followed? Did you have any say about the music? Was there anything he did musically with your words you were surprised by?
We worked together in his studio throughout the intensive final weeks and also at most of the sessions that spawned the initial ‘skeletons’ of the tracks over the years. I think we both took some steps away from our comfort zones over these sessions, which is what collaborating relies on, and there was certainly never a sense that he ‘did’ music and I ‘did’ words. Poems and Music were equally likely to change in the process of making, and the making process was an open forum of ideas.
‘The Real’ is perhaps the most recent example of a ‘school’ of song formation whereby Brian would have several pieces on the go and I would provide or write words for the ones that most spoke to me. The first stage in these tracks was to superimpose a vocal over the existing music. Sometimes, a vocal just steers the piece towards its final shape and many musical ideas were provided by the vocalists, not directly, but in the nuances of their readings and more specifically their own ways of forming spoken words.
The components of this one just fell into place with a combination of reshaping an existing ‘poem’ I had been working on, and the beautiful chance arrival at the studio of Elisha Mudley, who really did appear like an angel that day, unannounced, and just in time for us to record. Not all days ran that smoothly!”
It may seem an obvious thing to say, but Brian is interested in a world of
sound. When selecting the reading voices he would almost always choose a female voice, and one that was not a native English speaker; these choices were made because they best served his world of sound. The readers would also not spend time ‘rehearsing’ the readings. Again, the readings- like the readers – were designed not with rigid ideas of poetic performance in mind but rather to produce interesting worlds of sound; and secondarily from words that would hold resonance too once placed in new conditions. These decisions were Brian’s, or rather, the ‘conditions’ were from Brian’s vision.
Male voices that appear on the various recordings (while admittedly not representative of the whole male speaking world) tend to thicken out a bass end, and to accentuate that kind of pulse when treated in a musical sense. Female voices, in the same terms of generalisation, tend to ‘sing’ a treble end, and introduce more variables to the overall music. Where possible I think we tried to achieve music in the voices without reverting to totally digitally rebuilding the voice recordings, we tried to accentuate those musical characteristics that are in voices already rather than craft entirely artificial ones.
Again these conditions were mostly Brian’s and I tended to try to carve my contributions into words that would both serve music and feed back from it. It was a process that required a great deal of dexterity, and a mind open to
allowing ‘meanings’ to flood from one chamber to fill a different one, at the risk of sounding esoteric. Occasionally that involved mourning a good early edit as it disappeared down river to become something else, but without that process the banks of communication through words and music could not be tested for interesting leaks.
‘Voice choice’ therefore involved taking the stress away from ‘what is poetic?’ and ‘what is polished?’ and towards ‘what is voice?’ and ‘what is music?’. Some readers read as though reading an important truth, others as though reading a list, and some read just to get through each syllable and finish. All kinds hold potential.
It should be added that female voices also belong to women, and there is no doubt that a woman vastly improves the atmosphere of a recording studio, and a most welcome change in dynamic from the one that existed between us two
men, with the occasional input of more men, like Nick (Robertson) and Peter (Chilvers).
* * *
This interview continues in Part 2, (Rick Holland Poet/Eno collaborator ruminates on the music of words), where Holland ruminates on the best place to hear the album, the music of words and even evaluates Eno’s early explorations of lyric-writing on 1973’s Here Come the Warm Jets and 1974’s Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy).
*I was able to buy a deluxe edition hardcover, double CD version via DeepDiscount.com, as it sold out on many sites during pre-order (it is now, once again, appearing in many stores).
(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)