The Synergy of Poetry and Music
by Brandon L. Rucker

Musical interpretation of poems and stories is not a common thing. Nor is literary interpretation of songs. As both a musician and creative writer, that's definitely something I would like to see happen in the future. However, in the present, we here at Liquid Imagination are introducing the next step in our synergistic presentation: the fusion of poetry, visual art and music. We are using this innovative conglomeration of combining completely separate art forms to create a stunning hybrid that we believe gives birth to a whole new art form all its own.

For a brief history of how this innovation came to be at Liquid Imagination, you may want to read my short article The Suspended Origin of Music on Liquid Imagination.

Here's a fun fact: the debut issue of Liquid Imagination was published on my 35th birthday of September 26, 2008. Call me a fatalist, but that tells me that in some mystical, preternatural way that my involvement with this wonderful webzine is the result of fate preordained by an unknown pantheon of music and literature gods. My questionable numerology aside, I consider this a matter of destiny fulfilled.

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There are a variety of ways to approach interpreting a poem. First and foremost are the very words of the poem themselves. But the way we do it here at LI, those poems are accompanied by images that we believe enhances the overall reading experience by helping us illustrate the ideas presented in the text and subtext. So this act of interpretation requires the interpreter to take in the entire layout of words and pictures and then respond to it. Another thing I was mindful of is that most poetry, on average, has a pretty low word count. Usually it only takes a minute or two to read most poems, and usually no more than four or five on longer poems. With that in mind, I concluded that the length of the musical accompaniment should be fairly proportionate to the length of time it takes to read the poem(s) presented on the page. In terms of simplicity versus complexity, I found that in most cases simple arrangements were the better option. The musical element is meant to enrich the reading, not disrupt it.

To do a trial run of this experiment, I chose the poetry page from our forrth issue featuring two poems, "A Wake" and "Textual" written by Paula Ray. Both poems were short and very overt in what they were portraying. The text spoke more to me than the subtext. One would think that's pretty simple to interpret, but since this page was the proverbial guinea pig, I wanted to also respond to the images as well and interpret the entire page because as our mission statement says, we're blending words, images and music as a collective whole.

The layout of Paula Ray's page has two creepy images at the top. Those two immediately caught my muse and inspired me to compose what JAM calls a "moody, Gothic" piece of music. We were all quite pleased with the result and so began our fabulous new adventure.

Next up was the new poetry for our fifth issue, starting with Lee Sloca's "Dreamboat" which I found to be tragically romantic. If you've read it, you will pick up on its erotic overtones. Well, when a musician thinks of music that is sexy, he immediately thinks of bass and a slow beat. Add some soulful, melodic piano and you can picture the candlelight and smell the incense. It's time to get busy in the bedroom … on a bed covered in red rose petals.

The third piece I composed was for "Bear Rules" written by Paul Handley. Just looking at the layout of that page, with the warm colors and images of solitude and serenity, I initially thought a quiet, mellow piece of music was in order. But it was not that simple. This is a poem about a bear and there's a big grizzly bear at the bottom of the page. I was conflicted. I consulted my crack staff consisting of Publisher John Arthur Miller (our fearless leader), Managing Editor Sue Babcock (my personal MVP through all of this), and Poetry Editor Chrissy Davis (everyone's sweetheart). Collectively they said the music should have a certain heaviness because, well, there's a BEAR roaming around in them thar woods! I agreed. And I compromised to create a piece featuring a lumbering piano riff, lush keyboards textures and plodding tom-tom drums. That distant BOOM you hear? That's the grizzly bear on the prowl. And she rules.

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Whenever I see actual photos that display the green and brown of nature, such as forests and landscapes, I immediately think of the acoustic guitar or the piano because those are two instruments, along with drums, that are largely made of wood and rely on natural acoustics instead of electrical amplification. That's how I approached Bradley Nelson's "The Tree" and Deborah Walker's "An Insufficient Eulogy to My Sister" . You'll notice both of those poetry pages have a dominant tree theme. And both poems have a certain air of dismay and lament. I believe I captured these moods using piano and acoustic guitar.

For "Frailty's Baggage ~ Channeling Jim Morrison" written by Theresa C. Newbill I decided two things right away: the music would absolutely have to feature an organ (in tribute to The Doors), and that it had to rock. I know that Theresa loves her some Rob Zombie, so I thought I could honor her as well with a little rockin' groove. There was a brief electric guitar solo that I cut out because it felt out of place. Not only did the music have to rock at some point, but considering the dark imagery, it also called for a kind of old school haunted house feel.

With Aaron J. French's "Monotony" I got literal. With its title and monotonous theme it was hard to resist the urge to play something very repetitive with very little movement musically. This is another one that begged to rock.

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Sometimes you just can't direct the muse; the muse will direct you instead. Oftentimes it won't be to the place to which you hoped you would arrive, but usually after the surprise of Where the heck am I? and How did I get here?, you've hopefully realized you're in a special place all its own.

What I also could not do in every case was focus too much on the title and what it might suggest, because the title may not actually capture and advertise the essences of the poem, or the overall poetry page itself. "Neurological Defects" and "Panic Room" written by Heather Niciase were two examples of this. With the former, I chose to ignore the literal connotation of the words. Instead, I was really driven by that dark image of the hydra dragon in the turbulent dark sea as well as the fiery image below it. Movement and tension were in order here. With the latter poem (represented in the second movement of music) I went contrary to what its title might suggest and wrote a piece that was more calm and soothing. Besides, any image of mother Earth should invoke a sense of peace.

And last but certainly not least was Kyle Owens' celestial epic "A Chase of Stars" , which I purposefully saved until all the other poems were scored. For this grand finale I wanted to take a more elaborate approach with such a lengthy piece. Of all the guitar effects and keyboard voices I was certainly going to use those that had that spacey quality. Some of them even had spaced-out names like 'stellar' for the electric guitar and 'equinox' for the keyboard. This grand approach led to a more complicated recording session, and as a one-man show here I devotedly wear the various hats that cover performance, recording engineering, mixing and production in addition to composer.

And I'm willing to wager that I probably have the best job around here. It doesn't matter if I'm wrong because so long as I believe that, our poetry pages will greatly benefit from that conviction. I'm having a great time doing this, and I hope that you enjoy reading … and listening.

Click here to visit the poems of Liquid Imagination