Unbound 2016: Music and poetry
From folk to punk and now hip-hop, music has long enjoyed a powerful kinship with poetry: together more than a sum of their parts. We speak to four Unbounders at the forefront of this cross-cultural collaboration to better understand the relationship
The Skinny: Can you explain the history and ethos behind your multi-discipline events?
Michael Pedersen (Neu! Reekie!): For us to be diverse, desirable and daunting enough, we needed to host a fertile breeding ground for cross-cultural collaborations. I’ve always been enamoured by the idea of poets supporting musicians and vice versa, and all the fecundities of the imagination where those meet in the middle.
Chris Redmond (Tongue Fu): I started Tongue Fu nine years ago with our bass player, Riaan Vosloo. The idea was simply to do a few gigs with no rehearsals. I'd book some poets, he'd book some musicians and we'd see what happened. It was pretty low key and experimental. We had no idea if it would work. Sometimes it didn't but when it did, it was clear that it was exciting for us as artists and also for the audience. It kind of pulled everyone in the room into the present moment, because it was all about risk.
Jenny Lindsay: Flint & Pitch continues the multi-artform approach that Rachel McCrum and I had with Rally & Broad, where you can see spoken word poetry, live authors and bands all on one bill. It makes for a good live experience: it's engaging, it keeps an audience on their toes and also offers more of a chance for great collaborations to emerge. There is a far bigger audience for live music than there is for spoken word, unless yer talking about folks as well-kent as Kate Tempest. But that's starting to change. The music acts aren't there as some kind of filler: the acts I programme are excellent lyricists – awesome and flexible and adaptable enough to appreciate and embrace the different style of audience at a predominantly literary event.
Michael Pedersen of Neu! Reekie!, photo: Tom Adam
Do performers need to adapt their verbal delivery for these collaborative events?
MP: Nah, we’ll adapt around them. We booked them for their light and lustre after aw – not the other way around.
CR: [Poets] need to be prepared for their work to sound different. They need to be willing to relinquish a bit of control and see the whole thing as a fun experiment. Music gives a context and emotional support to words, and when that music is being improvised it requires the poets to be flexible, and able to listen and respond to what’s happening around them.
Do only certain vocal styles or types of performer work against the backdrop of music? What are your considerations when programming?
JL: It's the compere's role to ensure that each act is well set up, wherever they are in a line-up; the programmer's role is to programme an event that works as a coherent whole. The band's full set will be the last slot, usually, as yes, it is harder to follow a band than owt else, so it wouldn't be sensible to put the short story writer straight after them, for example!
CR: I think the thing that determines whether the collaboration is going to work, is how well they communicate – how open they are, with the band and with the audience. You can tell by watching how people perform where their focus is. If they appear open and not too introspective and the writing is good then there's a good chance it will work.
MP: We tend to start by billing a poet. It all lights up and lifts off from there. It’s where we’re both coming from after all [Pedersen co-programmes and comperes Neu! Reekie! with Kevin Williamson]. We’re conscious of the tempo of the night, the expectations and affectations in raising the volume and bringing it back down – crescendos, diminuendos and each puff of sound or sight in between. It sounds a little wanky to say each event is its own artistic symphony, but I’m not denying it’s how we feel.
Have you witnessed a cross-pollination in skills, and also audiences at your events?
MP: We are our audience and they are us too. We cross paths all over town so I guess and hope so.
JL: That's part of what the aim is: most audience members come because they know it's a multi-act thing, but some do come to see one particular act and then leave having experienced acts and art forms they might well never have thought they would like! I do always try to mix well-known folk with newcomers for this reason, of course!
CR: Definitely. The skills we've developed as a group have been informed by each other's abilities, perspectives and ideas. We've grown a very healthy audience in London precisely because we mix up art forms. It's more than a poetry night so we get more than a poetry audience. I think there's more of an appetite to smash stuff together now. Purism is fine and has it's place but it's so much more exciting, to us at least, to co-create, remix and reinvent; to push a little at the boundaries.
Dave Hook (Solareye of Scottish hip-hop band Stanley Odd) now straddles the camps of both rap and spoken word, and here ponders on the porous borders between them.
Solareye of Stanley Odd, photo: Tom Adam
I think as a rapper you generally go into any of these situations [spoken word events] thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’ I certainly feel out of my comfort zone alone on stage. Having said that, the spoken word events I’ve been at this year have been some of my favourite gigs. There’s a real diversity of style and content and the audiences actually listen to folk – which in itself is a bit disturbing if you’re used to playing gigs at clubs and festivals!
I really enjoy the a cappella spoken word nights because you can slow down your delivery and sometimes you have a bit more time to explain the songs before you rap them. Audience feedback is more direct and you end up in a sort of conversation as much as a performance, which is cool too.
There is very often a different tone between spoken word and rap. Obviously rap is generally written for a beat and the rhythms that you would rap to are there even when you take the beat away. I don’t know the art of spoken word well enough to comment really but there seem to be general boundaries for style and tone although I notice that not all spoken word artists conform to them. Holly McNish is one of my favourite writers and performers. She’s also a complete natural at talking to an audience and delivering her poems. Her performance is definitely poetry, definitely not rap, but it feels completely like natural speech patterns and I love that the stories leading up to her poems are regularly longer than the poems themselves.