CD cover EP A Breath She Took

A Breath She Took ~ A new Jazzoetry Release

 

CD cover EP A Breath She Took

While sorting through material for my first full-length musical poetry, aka jazzoetry album, I came across three poems I had already recorded. Listening back to them with fresh ears, I suddenly realized that they were thematically too different from the other pieces I was writing. I thereupon decided to release these three pieces separately. These poems – now jazzoems – will be available in January 2019 as a three-track EP in all digital music stores titled A Breath She Tookwhich is also the name of the first jazzoetry piece.

All three are of autobiographical nature. This is exactly why these three pieces stood out from the other pieces, which are about other women. In these still unreleased poems I have been exploring an array of unusual, often imagined stories about women from diverse cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. I have focussed on their unique struggles – but not my own. Although, maybe I did in a metaphorical and symbolical way, now thinking of them.

Jazzoetry. The Principle

The principle that unites all of these poems musically is that they follow the same approach of poetry in combination with jazz improvisation [= jazzoetry]. I developed this concept in 2009 when I first released my piece Gold & Frankincense as a single. It was followed by the EP During the Hours, which includes my favourite piece, Songs of the Soul, initially inspired by the saxophonist Zane Musa. You can read about the development of this story here.

Once I have completed a poem, the recording process follows the same method for each one but is of course at the same time, very individual: According to the sentiment and temperament of the piece, I search for a jazz musician with great improvisational talent. Atmospherically, I want her or his instrument and playing to feel and sound most suitable in the interpretation and illustration and communication of that specific poem.

Jazzoetry. The Recording Process

My goal is always to capture complete performances. Unlike the usual studio procedure of assembling tracks, I don’t want any overdubbing or editing to take place. This would spoil the principle of a live improvisation and any spontaneity involved. That’s why I ask each musical soloist –who has never read the poems prior to their studio arrival– to respond to my reading as if they were at a live jazz gig, improvising on the spot.

Each piece is recorded live in two separate recording booths in dialogue: with my recital of the poem and the individual instrumentalist’s interpretation. For my reading and performance, the atmosphere of being in the moment, just like on stage is often just as inspiring and electric as it is for the musician. Invariably, my concept is usually achieved within two to three takes.

Jazzoetry Recording of A Breath She Took

For the poem A Breath She Took, which is track number one on the EP, I chose the cello for its warm and resonant sound and its associated features: the softly swung curvatures of a female body. Albeit loving the piano, I have a very close relationship with the cello. It was my first instrument as a child. I was extremely proud that our music teacher chose me to be trained for the school orchestra. When we moved to Germany, however, I was completely heartbroken: the cello was a school instrument and I consequently had to give it up.

Le Violon d'Ingres (Ingres's Violin) Artist/Maker: Man Ray (American, 1890 - 1976) Culture: American Place: Paris, France (Place Created) Date: 1924 Medium: Gelatin silver print Object Number: 86.XM.626.10 Dimensions: 29.6 × 22.7 cm (11 5/8 × 8 15/16 in.) Copyright:
Man Ray, Le Violon d’Ingres (Ingres’s Violin) Paris 1924 © Man Ray Trust ARS-ADAGP

Ironically, later, my mother bought herself one and started taking lessons, which obviously brought up a lot of feelings. The cello therefore mirrors perfectly not only my longing for that instrument and the close relationship I was developing with it, but my longing for an empathetic, nurturing and loving mother.

I asked the cellist Matthew Cooker to provide his improvisational talents. He is one of Los Angeles most prolific cellists and has played in many orchestras and for diverse live artists (like Barbra Streisand and Luis Miguel). I first met him on a studio session for a few tracks on my fist solo album The World I am Livings In, which consists of very sparsely instrumented songs, surrounding themes of loss. Matthew’s playing has, in equal parts, the right amount of tenderness, fierceness and edginess a cellist. He moreover, possesses a sheer endless inventory of resin, ego, musicality, creativity and elbow grease.

When we were recording A Breath She Took live in the studio, I felt that that he was translating the contents of that piece and complimenting my reading so fittingly that I spontaneously decided to ask him to also improvise over my reading of another piece: Goldfish Bowl. [Read the lyrics by clicking here]

 

Jazzoetry Recording of Goldfish Bowl

So once again we were recording live, in a dialogue between voice and instrument and Goldfish Bowl, became the second poem on the EP. This piece is about the taxing and highly confusing effects of being psychologically abused. It’s about feeling trapped – even if only in one’s own head. And how a state of feeling crazy, slowly takes hold, destroying self-confidence and self-trust. Goldfish Bowl is about utter helplessness dwindling into hopelessness being that the abuse is already taking a severe toll. [Read the lyrics by clicking here]

 

Jazzoetry Recording of Ink on Silk


The third and last piece on the EP, Ink on Silk is similar to Goldfish Bowl because it’s about feeling highly frustrated and crazy-made. In Goldfish Bowl there’s a permanent state of lingering, total confusion and powerlessness. Whereby in Ink on Silk it is about trying to solve things but not having any impact, thus getting more and more infuriated and frustrated. This is why a percussive instrument with clanging metal bars seemed so suitable.

I had heard the vibraphonist, Nick Mancini, a couple of times live and was always impressed by his eagerness and fearlessness to improvise both rhythmically and melodically on his instrument. Some soloists carefully plan their improvisations. But Nick lets his instrument lead him, moreover, seduce him into stepping out onto stormy expeditions. During the recording of Ink on Silk, he was also able to create some quite unusual sounds by almost bending the aluminium sound bars with his felt mallets and giving the piece its perfect colourings. [Read the lyrics by clicking here]

 

Future Jazzoetry Projects

My next jazzoetry project will be to complete writing, and then to record and produce a full-length Jazzoetry album. It will comprise around 15 poems featuring a similar number of outstanding jazz soloists. The poems I am writing for this album explore an array of typical female topics. They are based on women from very diverse socio-economic and cultural backgrounds.

Being a woman myself, I have always been interested in my own and equally intrigued by other women’s paths. Being that per society and biology, we still face completely different challenges than men. There are so many stories and dreams of other women that ultimately seem to interweave with one another’s. Many stem from the sad truth that culturally, socially and politically (thus, economically) we are still confined and suppressed by expectations.

 

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© Herbert List, Goldfish Bowl, Santorini Greece, 1937
Songs of the Soul Frances Livings Musical Poetry Zane Musa Saxophone

Songs of the Soul ~ Musical Poetry and its Inspirations

 

Saxophone player writer tree struck by lightning grey clouds songs of the soul

 

One Sunday, on one of my searches to find a retreat, I paid the Self Realization Center in Los Angeles a visit. I had been working for some days on poetry and needed to relax and quieten my monkey mind. Besides that, I was slightly stuck and needed some inspiration. The Self Realization Center was dedicated in the 1950’s to the Indian Yogi and meditation guru Paramahansa Yogananda. It is an outdoor oasis with a large lake and a shrine that welcomes visitors of all religious denominations.

Tucked away from the famous Sunset Boulevard, the ten-acre site is only a quarter of a mile from the Pacific Ocean. The natural spring-fed lake is home to a variety of flora and fauna. There are swans, ducks and a vast amount of large, colourful Koi fish and trees and flowers from around the world.

Like many landmarks in Los Angeles, its origins can be traced back to the movie industry. Like in the early 1920s, when the famous film studio Inceville shot silent movies on site of the Lake Shrine Temple. A few years later, the real-estate magnate Alphonzo Bell, Sr. bought the land. The surrounding hillsides were hydraulically graded to fill the canyon and make it level for future development. When these activities were stopped short, a large basin was left in the can­yon. It soon filled with water from nearby springs creating Lake Santa Ynez — the only natural spring-fed lake within the city limits of Los Angeles.

The grounds include a Court of Religions honouring the five principal religions of the world. A very special relic, a portion of Mahatma Ghandhi’s ashes, can also be found here. They are entombed in a small stone memorial on the north side of the lake. I could definitely detect a slight whiff of esoteric haughtiness in the air and it was obvious that a lot of money was sunk into the upkeep of the grounds. That said, I highly appreciated that this oasis was open to the general public. Unlike many areas of lush and precious green you see when driving around in Los Angeles – like the Veteran’s park in West L.A., the country clubs in Bel Air or Hancock Park. They are all gated and completely restricted to the members of those elite clubs or organisations.

Songs of the Soul – by Yogananda?

After walking in the gardens, I had a look in the small gift shop. To my surprise, displayed in one of the glass cabinets was a small publication of poems by the founder, Paramahansa Yogananda  titled Songs of the Soul. I lifted it carefully from the case, I flicked through it and learnt, that it had been first published in 1923. Book cover Songs of the Soul

It had exactly the same title as one of the first pieces I had written shortly after moving to Los Angeles in 2005 and that I had been editing. I had no idea that this publication existed. Yogananda had also written most of these approximately 200 short poems during his early years in the United States, which I thought was interesting. But perhaps impressions come more easily to paper when we are in foreign situations. We are then especially vulnerable and therefore receptive for new experiences. Many artists in exile – which is exactly how I experienced Los Angeles – have found comfort and support in expressing their inner emotions in a creative way.

But unlike this book, presented in its showcase, my poem Songs of the Soul was unpublished. Perhaps because I somehow sensed that something was still missing. I just didn’t quite know what. Moved by this coincidence, and surrounded by so much beauty and spirituality, I decided to revisit the piece at home, where I discovered some other interesting similarities.

Religious Experiences in Nature

Yogananda describes in his poems, his deep and religious experiences in nature. Some of them depict his memories of his motherland India and profound impressions new friends and acquaintances had made on him. But most of all, his pieces are of spiritual nature, praising God. My poem, Songs of the Soul isn’t of religious nature at all, and at the very least about worshipping any kind of God. But it is, in a similar way, about encountering a form of deep spirituality – namely in music.

grey sky, dark clouds, tree being struck by lightning songs of the soulThus, I could translate Yogananda’s short foreword, “Love is the song of the soul, singing to God” into the sentiment “Music is the song of the soul, singing to its listener”. Inspiring the first drafts of my poem had been two very intense musical experiences that I had virtually channeled. From very pure and real impressions the piece had basically written itself. But suddenly I felt that words weren’t enough and wanted to make the translation of these experiences more viable.

That is when I decided to make live recordings of three poems; of Songs of the Soul, ‘The Maliciousness of Words’ and ‘During the Hours’ and release them as an EP. To support and interpret the atmosphere of each unique piece, I chose three of Los Angeles’ finest jazz musicians. I had seen and heard them many times and felt that not only their instruments but even their personalities suited each individual poem. You can read about that here in my post, My goal was to capture complete performances, of both the reading and the solo instrument, rather than the usual studio procedure of assembling tracks for endless overdubbing and editing.

 

Finally – In the Studio Recording Songs of the Soul

The recording sessions took place in November 2009 at the studio of Nolan Shaheed in Pasadena. The musicians had not heard or read the poems prior to their studio arrival. I wanted them to respond as if they were at a live jazz gig, improvising on the spot which was exactly where I saw their greatness. Each piece was recorded live, with the individual instrument in dialogue with my recital of the poem: The atmosphere was electric and invariably my concept was achieved within two to three takes.

The Maliciousness of Words is a fun piece which deals with the characteristics and moods of individual words. I chose the jazz pianist Brandon Coleman because of his humour and his ability to convey such easiness which enabled him to fully compliment the poem.

During the Hours, which I also chose as the album title, is an ode to a loved one. It features the violinist Paul Cartwright whose gift in creating lyrical melodies with strong narratives complimented the romantic and scenographic notion of this piece.

Songs of the Soul Zane Musa saxophone for Frances Livings' musical poetryFor Songs of the Soul I found the perfect match in Zane Musa on tenor saxophone. Zane is unique for blending middle Eastern melodies with intricate jazz improvisation. He is an incredible live performer so I was proud that I was able to capture that side of his playing as well.

With my reading and his playing I had finally completed the piece ‘Songs of the Soul’. It mirrors musically, technically and emotionally the highs and lows of musical performance and the conflicts of creative angst I tried to capture.

I realized that during that tranquil Sunday, whilst gazing lazily at Koi fish, I hadn’t been closer to God but perhaps to myself and I was emotionally receptive for what needed to be done.

Listen to the piece and download it here:
Songs of the Soul

Exposed in the idle spotlight
awkward and unfashioned
almost uncongenial
bleak and inhospitable
transparent paper swaying
languidly waiting
lost, but no frustration
life, does it feel alien?

But then you strip down to the bone
start slashing at my flesh
emotions bluntly plundered
and torn out of my chest
as your songs of the soul
impatiently unfold
revealing dark obsessions
that violently evolve

Slave to your instrument
the bridge to each sentiment
the culprit of insanity!
or the medium of lucidity?
A lover lost in rapture
in haunting ecstasy
distilling good and evil
to disturbing melodies

That are darker than the darkest
side of a blood-shot moon
your notes a lake of indigo
spreading through the room

Longer than the longest
Arab caravan
drying my insides
winding through the desert sands

And sweeter than the sweetest
mistresses’ delight
sugar dusted lokum
in the heat of a vibrant night

Oh and softer than the softest
warm summer‘s breeze
ling’ring in the shadows
of ancient Cyprus trees

Steeper than the steepest
spiral stairway
as you climb to higher higher –
and your body folds in labour
bearing sighing melodies

Pain and passion synchronized
comprising unborn, old and wise
Songs of the soul
oh, in torment they are born.

(c) Frances Livings 2011. All Rights Reserved.

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Here are some other artists who have explored “Songs of the Soul” in a variety of ways:

This video shows the two Swiss musicians Adesh (Sitar) and his wife Ajita (Tabla) performing as part of the “Songs of the Soul” concert tour in Zurich. The concert was commemorating the musical legacy of spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy who inspired thousands of people with his mantric melodies.

Another interesting find is a trailer for the documentary “Sacred Sounds: Music of the World, Songs of the Soul”. It explores the idea of sacred music. It asks, how it is used as a communicator with and in celebration of God? Why is it shared by almost every culture and faith in the world? Through dynamic musical performances, interviews with artists and religious figures, director Carmine Cervi breaks down cultural, political, and religious barriers to bring us to an understanding of faith through music.

More than a dozen artists from Islamic, Christian, and Jewish traditions appear. Noa is a renowned Israeli singer bringing her message of Middle East peace to the Arab world; Sheikh Yassin, an Egyptian singer of religious hymns; Avay-e-Douste, an Iranian female quartet improvising songs in the Radif system; the Aissawas of Fez, a religious brotherhood performing Sufi ceremonial music famous for its trance-inducing ability; and Liz McComb, an American gospel singer who transmits her passion in a performance of intensity and emotion.

Sacred Sounds takes place against the exotic backdrop of Fez, a millennium-old city of twisting alleys and covered bazaars, bright-tile mosques and crumbling palaces. Busy souks, bundle-laden donkeys, and the call to prayer that flows from the city’s pervasive loud speakers contribute to a sensual, mystical experience in Morocco’s centre.

Also, recently this is a groundbreaking documentary on the science of Yoga Meditation and the life of Paramahansa Yogananda, the Indian Swami who came to America from India in 1920 to bring Yoga to the west, was released. This is the trailer to the film: