Back in 2013, bassist and composer Alexis Cuadrado released his album A Lorca Soundscape, a series of evocative settings of the poetry of Federico García Lorca. Cuadrado seems to have caught the poetry bug, as his next major project deals with the form as well.
This Friday marks the release of Poètica, Cuadrado’s latest album on Sunnyside Records. Instead of setting poetry to music, Cuadrado worked closely with two living poets—Rowan Ricardo Phillips and Melcion Mateu–and composed music to accompany recitations of their work. To celebrate the release of this album, Cuadrado and his ensemble will come to The Jazz Gallery for two nights of performances. We caught up with Alexis this week to talk about his approach to composing with spoken text, and his recent work composing and arranging music for The New Yorker Radio Hour.
The Jazz Gallery: So your upcoming shows are an album release for Poètica. Could you tell us a bit more?
Alexis Cuadrado: It’s a project that’s taken about two years to finish, and it’s a collaboration between my music and the poetry of Rowan Ricardo Phillips and Melcion Mateu. Melcion is from Barcelona and writes in Catalan. That’s about the sum of it; my concept was basically to get away from the idea of a beatnik dude slamming poetry with a band in the background. My vision for this has been to really integrate the poetry and the composition. Poetry that’s being read doesn’t have a meter or time. It’s not like freestyling, where you are delivering the verses with a rhythm. The challenge was, how can we time the un-timeable? I had to figure out a system of looseness and tightness at the same time, a way of integrating the poetry that’s being read with the tightness of the music. Music, even if it’s rubato, is always moving forward. So, that was the technical challenge. Conceptually, I wanted to make the music and poetry inform and interact with each other. The poets are essentially the horns of the band, you know? They’re really one more musical instrument.
TJG: How did you approach that challenge of integrating the two forms?
AC: I sort of figured it out through trial and error, and by careful reading. I timed the poetry with a timer, and asked myself how many bars of music that would be. I created sections that were more or less open, where in a certain section the poet should approximately read a certain amount in a flexible amount of time. It’s loose, and sometimes they go over the boundaries, and by now we can feel how the whole thing flows together. It’s not measured exactly, which is what I love. We get something different every time. It makes us as musicians react as well. It’s a reactive, symbiotic relationship, in the same way that happens when there’s a wind player.
TJG: Do you see instrumentalists and poets as basically speaking the same language, in general, but especially with regard to this project?
AC: There’s a difference between what they do and what we do in that their text is written out, pretty much. They’re improvising to a certain degree, with their inflection and time, but it’s like they’re reading their own melody. My vision for it is truly that they’re one more instrument, and just happen to be humans reading text. The fact that it’s read text is only incidental.
TJG: So what were some of the poets’ greatest challenges in approaching this project?
AC: Melcion had never done anything like this before, so we had to get together and train. I did demos, as I do for almost everything I do. Sometimes MIDI, sometimes a raw instrumental track, and then I read the poetry as a suggestion and point of departure. This provided a reference for him to listen to. Then he and Rowan took off and did their own thing. Sometimes I would send sheet music to work on and look at. It honestly wasn’t that much different from the way musicians learn. It was all a part of the same process and work.
TJG: Can you tell me about the structure and composition of Poètica?
AC: On the album there are thirteen tracks. We had about eighteen, so some fell through during the process. There’s a joint narrative. What’s beautiful about Rowan’s and Melcion’s poetry is that it’s part of their identity. And this question of who we are, of identity, ties in all of us. I am an immigrant, Melcion is an immigrant, Rowan is married to an immigrant. His wife is Catalan, from Barcelona. We all have a different relationship with living in New York and the United States. Through our different experiences of living here, of being in this place, we created a sort of universal common narrative of being in New York and being an immigrant, and relating to the flow and atmosphere of a place. So that’s the overall concept, but the different pieces are like short stories, that tell you things, like little brush strokes that give you the overall painting. Obviously, Rowan and Melcion have different styles. For example, there’s a three part piece called “Balada de Matt Sweeney,” one of Melcion’s pieces, which explains his relationship with his roommate.
He’s a real pig:
he leaves the sink full of hairs,
the lid of the toilet splattered
and he often forgets to flush.
He’s doesn’t wash the dishes until they’re covered in verdigris.
He leaves his dirty underwear on the sofa,
a shoe under,
spliff ash on the floor.
Realment és un porc:
deixa la pica del lavabo plena de pèls,
la tapa del vàter esquitxada
i sovint es descuida d’estirar la cadena.
No renta els plats fins que no són plens de verdet.
Deixa els calçotets bruts al damunt del sofà,
una sabata a sota,
restes de porro a terra.
-Excerpt from “Ballad of Matt Sweeney” by Melcion Mateu, from Poètica
Anyone who has roommates in New York City can completely relate to that immediately. It’s a New York experience and a universal experience, part of the struggle of moving to New York, having to deal with crazy people living under the same roof as you. That’s a part of the ritual, the rite of passage, that everyone has to go through to acquaint to where they’re now living. I think and hope that this is well represented in the music and poetry.
TJG: So, for someone who’s never heard your music before, how do you take these concepts and turn them into compositions?
AC: Well, for me this is my sixth album. It’s part of my evolution as a composer and performer. What do I want to say? First, I have to find this concept, and bring my own sound and vision of the music. My music is one third jazz, one third flamenco, and one third new music, in terms of form, rhythm, and structure. I don’t really think about those labels any more. I love the jazz tradition, but I don’t really care to label things. I just try to create a music that can tell the story that I’m trying to tell.
TJG: For this show at the Gallery, you’ll have Ben Monder, Dan Weiss, and Andy Milne, yes?
AC: Yes, and Tyshawn Sorey is playing one of the nights instead of Dan Weiss. Tyshawn is on the album, as well as Miles Okazaki.
TJG: How did you put that group together?
AC: The whole project came to me in a dream. I dreamt about it, which had never happened to me before. I dreamt of the two poets, and of the other people, Andy, Tyshawn and Miles. As I was waking up, I said “Wow, that would be really awesome.” I got out of bed and called everyone, and that was it. It was really weird; it hasn’t happened since. I’m not a esoteric or religious kind of guy. I’m a total pagan and atheist [laughs]. I don’t believe in anything like that, but it just happened. And when something like that happens, you’ve got to jump on it and just do it. It’s taken three years, but that’s the story.
TJG: Did you have any second thoughts along the way?
AC: No! I was just doing this no matter what, and that’s that.
TJG: I see that you’ve also been doing some scoring for The New Yorker Radio Hour. Could you tell us a little more about that?
AC: It’s along the lines of some of my latest projects. Last year, I did a score for a Chaplin silent film that we performed live. I’ve recently this year been doing a lot of scoring for radio and podcasts, and have another upcoming project for sound film. It’s a really fun way to work, make some money, and expand my creative outlet. I try to do it in a non-commercial and very functional way that really serves the show’s purpose and simultaneously pleases me creatively as a producer and composer. I do all the recording, mixing, mastering, and additional production. It’s a lot of technical challenges, but it’s a great experience of learning to do it on the job.
TJG: Do you see a link between this kind of on-the-job work that you do and with Poètica?
AC: Yeah, totally! For me, I think what I can offer is different than, say a music house. A music house can say “We will offer you a song that sounds like Drake, or Rihanna, or Radiohead,” or whatever. It’s a commercial thing, so people ask for specific things, or people just go to a music library and buy what they want. But I’m sort of an in-between. For example, for The New Yorker, they said “Write one original, and make two arrangements of our theme music.” My goal was to produce every sound with the bass. There are no commercially produced samples. So I had to build a palette of percussion with the bass, find synth and mallet sounds with the bass, and then all of the regular bass stuff. So I spend almost a month just finding sounds. They didn’t give me a deadline, so I could really do something artistic, not just go to my sample library, click some stuff, and get paid. That meant that I took a lot more time for it than I usually would with a commercial job, but as a consequence, I think it has a really beautiful identity; not just for the show, but for myself as well. I’m very proud of the quality of the project, and I think it works for the show well. In that way, it’s quite similar to, say, an album, but the medium is completely different.
TJG: You also teach at the New School—how does your identity as a teacher tie in with your work as a producer and composer?
AC: I love teaching, and I think it’s an important part of the arts. There’s so much controversy over jazz at universities, and it’s a hard one, because I see the value of what students get in school. My goal is not only to teach them the information of the curriculum, but to foster independence in the student, in the sense that I answer their questions with more questions, and encourage them to find their own answers to questions. There’s a lot of inquiry and getting students to resolve questions on their own. I also try to open their eyes in terms of what they should and can do after they graduate, and what to expect from reality. As you can see, I have to teach, play, write, and take care of my family too, in order to make ends meet and make enough money to survive, continue my creative process, and not go totally crazy. It’s a challenge to be a musician in New York city, or anywhere, really. I ask the student, what are you going to do? How are you going to figure it out? All of my classes have the normal technical components, but also have the reality check, where deadlines, work, and obligations are real. I treat it as the real world, not a lab in which anything goes. But I try to be super cool about it, fostering self reliance and self-sufficiency while being creative and artful. It’s great to see students enter at eighteen years old and leave at twenty-two, and they’re completely different. I love seeing that.
TJG: Anything to add about the upcoming show?
AC: I’m super excited about it. I have a great band that I love to play with, and I think the music is pretty unique; I’m not sure how to express it, exactly, but I’m really excited about it! And I’m so happy to do it at the Gallery. It’s a place that represents the more creative identity of the jazz community in New York. Every project that comes through the Gallery is super strong, so I’m grateful for the support, and am always thrilled to be a part of the Gallery’s community.
TJG: Well we’re all excited for the show; looking forward to seeing you there. Thanks, Alexis!
AC: Thank you!
The Jazz Gallery celebrates the release of Alexis Cuadrado’s Poètica on Friday, May 20th, and Saturday, May 21st, 2016. The group features Mr. Cuadrado on bass and compositions, Ben Monder on guitar, Andy Milne on piano, Dan Weiss and Tyshawn Sorey on drums; and Rowan Ricardo Phillips and Melcion Mateu on spoken word. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.