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).
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
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).
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.
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”?
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.
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.)