A Year ago, Steve Lacy

A year ago, Steve Lacy, the greatest soprano sax of his generation, died. A great friend to poets, Steve had been a major force in my life ever since I met him in Rotterdam in the middle seventies. The single-mindedness of his artistic engagement, the clarity & depth of his quest, were examplary. He was a true teacher, i.e. someone who never preached, never told you I told you so, but someone who in a zen-masterly way did whatever had to be done, quietly, gently, & a week or a month later you realized what had been taught, how you had been changed, how Steve had gotten you to think differently, to see differently, to hear what you had never heard before — and thus to act differently. What we have left is the music, of course, and one can only hope that over time (quickly!, quickly!) the several hundred recordings he made will be re-released & kept available. Irène Aebi has been singing & playing, and, I believe, recording new versions of Futurities. Which of course brings to mind that the last time I saw Robert Creeley was on the occasion of the St Marks Poetry Project’s memorial for Steve. Both now gone – it’s been a rough year! Let me reproduce below a text that speaks to the meeting of those two, and which I wrote in 1985 as the liner notes for the now out of print vinyl version of Futurities:


Three years ago I was in Paris working on a radio program about the American poet Robert Creeley. Rather than fall back on the aseptic atmosphere of a studio, the idea was to find ‘live’ situations in which to record the poet reading his work. Creeley’s work seems to me to be clearly and deeply rooted in jazz: its rhythms, its tensions, the way syllable answers syllable, the way vowel rubs against consonant until the sparks fly, the way the line-breaks play with or against the reader’s breath. I immediately flashed on the idea of getting him together with Steve Lacy – a musician I knew to be an intelligent and passionate reader of poetry. I called Steve, he liked the idea and a meeting was arranged. Early one afternoon Bob and I arrived at Steve’s flat; the two started talking about the old days in New York and Boston, and although they had never met before it was as if they were picking up a conversation exactly where they left it off fifteen years ago in some late-night New York bar. A couple drinks and many recollections later, I suggested we get down to work. The sessions were short and sweet: I kept the Nagra rolling, Bob read and Steve blew. An hour later we left. That was that, I thought. I was wrong.A few months later, passing yet again through Paris, I dropped by Steve’s place. After the usual chat about the tough times us poets and musicians have making ends meet, I asked Steve what he was working on. He sat down at the piano and played a couple of songs, freshly composed. Irene was out, so he sung the lyrics. They were Creeley poems. FUTURITIES was in the making. It was a slow process and two years went by before the work took on its final shape. During that time I had moved to Paris, had seen Steve a number of times, heard more of the songs in their various state sof completion and talked to the composer about the work in progress, taking notes and even taping some of the conversations. I was intrigued by Lacy’s love for songs, a rather unfashionable jazz form these days, and asked him about it: “ I’ve been setting lyrics to music for almost twenty years. It took a long time to come to the surface – that stuff has got to age, to mellow out… We use all kinds of text, some that I wrote myself, but also telegrams, letters, things found on the streets, children’s exercises, slogans pulled off billboards – what you may call found poetry – but it all comes down to poetry or lyrics – to word-setting. Lyrics were sort of petering out in the fifties and that’s where I came in. I guess it’s my job to bring them back. Now the reason why all of this has been possible is that I had a voice to work with – Irene’s voice, a voice like an instrument. We started from zero together, me and her and the words made the music, but without the voice to experiment with it wouldn’t have happened. She was a gifted voice, a voice you can’t ignore or leave idle – it was my pleasure to find things that would fit it. It’s been a real adventure for some 18 years now.”

I wondered what the process of composition had been, how Steve got from the poems to the music: “The thing about the Creeley show is… the line. After our first meeting he sent me his Collected Poems and it really grabbed me, it was exactly the kind of stuff we worked with, it was so clear and simple and deep, and could be said over and over again… see, the thing about setting words to music, you have to be able to deliver them over and over again without boredom, without fatigues. You have to place them in musical pictures so that they can be sung. A poem is said again and again and if it is said enough times it becomes a song. That’s the way I find the music, by saying the words over and over again until it becomes sing-song or song-sing, whatever, until it begins to take on musical appearances. Well, the Creeley poems were great to work with; they were so chiseled, so expertly done, it was amazing. The thing that struck me was the subject matter. Love, the nature of love and the idea of sharing a life with somebody, falling in love, keeping it alive, getting old together, all these various aspects. And so I began to see a thread, something began to take shape, without my being aware of it at the time. I started to work on them, quite feverishly, without knowing what I was doing. I thought I was making a bunch of songs. But when I had a dozen of them, I thought, oh, something is going on here, and then I had eighteen done and I started to go crazy trying to find the order they went in. I couldn’t find it and later realized that the reason was that there were two kissing. They came to me in a mysterious way the next year. One of them Creeley sent me on a postcard. That became the opening song, the curtain raiser: “If it isn’t fun, don’t do it.” I still couldn’t get the rest of them right. The one that was missing I found in another book of his quite a few months later, and that turned out to be the key to the whole work. It’s the one that says “Take off your clothes, love, / and come with me.” It’s the key, it’s like love itself, the making of love. Then everything fell into place.”

Where did the title, FUTURITIES, come from? “Well, I was making these songs and the way they came out they seemed so logical, so clear to me that I thought, well, someday maybe these songs will become standards. And the title came to me: FUTURE STANDARDS. And then that became FUTURITIES, which is a more malleable word, easier to say, more fun. Over the next year I started orchestrating them. I began to see the proper form for presenting them. If you have twenty songs you just don’t get up and sing them, you have to have a proper setting. Well, then a whole lot of decisions just unfolded, they seemed like already made, I just had to find them. Like the decision to use the harp. Because the song HEAVEN suggests a harp — I mean, if you are in heaven you need a harp, right? — and the fact that I had already been working with an excellent harpist, Gyde Knebusch, allowed this to happen. The harp suggested a balance with a guitar, to make it resonate with the piano, and then the trombone became necessary to give a certain other color
to the whole thing. So these decisions are all around my normal group, which is a sextet without harp, guitar or trombone. I mean the work goes toward itself, the further you go, the more it become itself until it is fully realized.”

The work grew obviously more and more complex. When I heard that it was going to be premiered at the Lille festival, my first thought was that Steve had finally written an opera. Why then a dance performance, rather than a stage play with the singer up on the boards? “Well, it could have been… no, I don’t think so… it would have distracted from the information. These words, why sing them? Why deliver them? Because they are food for thought. If you give a whole evening over to information about love, it starts to look like a service of sorts. And then the idea came to me that this was sort of a marriage. And I began to think about the idea of marriage in jazz, and the idea of the altar came to me. So I asked Kenneth Noland to make an altar because he is a good friend whose work I love and I thought it would be great on stage — it is so beautiful that you can look at it for hours. And sure enough he made this beautiful object that changes colors as the lights hit it. I had given him the words — in fact I gave the lyrics to everyone involved in the work. That’s the focus. I didn’t want to lose the words.” Indeed, the very first question Stave asked me after the Lille premiere was: “Could you understand the words?” This is a rare care, for musicians have all to often the tendency to use lyrics mainly as support for thei music. Lacy kept the focus on the poems, so that even the dancers’ initial inspiration had to come from the words. He first gave them the lyrics and then a schema: “I thought very carefully about the action suggested in each lyric. In fact the thing about these lyrics is that they are already dancing, they are all about dance, about movement, rhythms: coming together, going apart, being born, dying, the movement is suggested in them. I boiled down each lyric to a phrase and gave that to the dancers, like, ‘make love,’ ‘fool around,’ ‘keep it alive,’ ‘who gets into trouble?’ ‘It must mean something!’, ‘grow old together.’ The dancers swallowed that and then threw it away. It was kind of a snapshot and I hope it helped them. But then they did whatever they wanted to do.”

For someone like myself, relatively uneducated in musical matters, witnessing this three-year process has been an awesome and humbling experience — and much pleasure. From the first tentative piano compositions through to the fully realized songs, and then to Lille and the whole show with its dancers, its décor, its lights, and now back to the music on this record: a major journey! Thank you, Mr. Lacy! I feel honored to have witnessed what I believe to be a major creation and, possibly, the birth of a whole now form. As a poet, my concerns have a lot to do with fixed and open forms. Along those liens FUTURITIES has taught me a lot. For example, how to keep a form open while at the same time giving it a fixed center: Ezra Pound’s “Unwobbling pivot” that must not be allowed to become a straightjacket strangling freedom. As Stave put it: “ What I was after, what I am always after is a kind of consistency and a free form. Something that’s fixed and open. The way this works in FUTURITIES is that there is room for improvisation, around the fixed part which is the song, the lyric. Each piece has an introduction, then comes the piece itself, then there’s a tag, a last phrase also repeated a couple of times. And then we return to the introduction — and that’s where the improvisation takes place, either group or solo improvisations. It’s a series of vamps, really, grooves to dance off — they take different forms among the twenty songs here — tango, waltzes, ballads. You take off from there, you can dance or play, whatever.” The poet Charles Olson, someone who was very close to Robert Creeley, once put the problem — or the desire — of the poet in succinct terms: “How to dance / sitting down.” I have now seen that happen, and I hope that the songs that make up FUTURITIES will indeed become standards. Lacy’s compositions are as clear and simple and beautiful as the poems. I’m looking forward to the day when I’ll walk into a bar, late one night, and through the noise and the talk some piano notes float toward me and a voice that sings “If it isn’t fun, don’t do it.”

Pierre Joris
Paris, Rue du Temple, Mardi Gras 1985

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2 Responses

  1. Tom Raworth says:

    Pierre: Yes, I was thinking back this past weekend too. Good you put up the notes. I’ll put a link on the Lacy and Creeley pages. love to Nicole and to you. Tom

  2. Jonathan says:

    Wow. Lacy, a musician always associated in my mind with Monk, did a collaboration with Creeley. I need to get my hands on this.

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