Jacob Cooper’s Terrain: A Roundtable on Music, Poetry, and Collaboration with Jacob Cooper, Greg Alan Brownderville, Dora Malech, and Zach Savich

I first met the “conceptually intrepid” composer Jacob Cooper when he asked if I’d write a text for what became his debut full-length album, Silver Threads (Nonesuch, 2014). The album features a suite of  songs that extend from variations on classical haiku, performed by the “versatile, virtuosic” singer Mellissa Hughes. This summer, New Amsterdam Records released Cooper’s second album, Terrain. Its “ambitious and beautiful” compositions highlight singers Theo Bleckman and Jodie Landau, as well as cellist Ashley Bathgate; I wrote one text for the album and so did two of Cooper’s other previous collaborators, poets Greg Alan Brownderville and Dora Malech. The four of us spoke in August about collaboration, performance, and art’s relationship to ritual in times of uncertainty. Samples from Cooper’s album are available here. (Zach Savich)

Dora Malech: It can feel as if there’s an implied hierarchy or dividing line between literature and song lyrics–think of the critique when Bob Dylan received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Greg and Zach, did you feel like you were working on “your poems” when writing these pieces for Jacob, or are they something different entirely to you?

Greg Alan Brownderville: I think of writing lyrics as different but related. Because Jacob’s composition is so expressive, there’s a lot I felt I didn’t need to transmit via words. While I’m happy with how the lyrics read on the page, they feel appropriately elliptical, leaving space for the music to do a lot of the lyrical and narrative work. This collaboration got me imagining what it might be like to write a script for a comic book. You’d have to keep in mind that illustrations communicate a great deal. If the words conveyed everything, they’d render the images redundant.

DM: There have been times when I sent a draft to Jacob, and he responded, “Hmmmm...a little on the nose.” It was freeing to take some of that expository pressure off and rework what I had sent.

Zach Savich: Yes, Jacob’s notes often pushed my work in new directions. I’d send potential material, and he’d say, “Maybe too colloquial,” or he’d ask if we could revise a line to have fewer syllables. As a result, the lyrics don’t feel like “my” poetry but like the result of the collaboration. That’d often have to do with his sense of the text—the language itself—as music.

Jacob Cooper: To the point about expository pressure, maybe there’s something about working in multiple art forms simultaneously that takes the pressure off needing to understand. I’ve heard poets complain—understandably—that people expect their work to “make sense” just because it uses language, a medium which we generally use for basic communication. Maybe putting poetry in the context of music frees it from that burden?

ZS: Poets are excellent complainers! But, yes, there can be the expectation that a poem should amount to a “message” that obliterates the need for the poem. You summarize the poem into a truism, or policy statement, or proverb, or learning outcome, which feels like it “makes sense” because it pares back the more sensational or experiential parts of a poem, the parts that don’t fit into things we think we already know. Do you feel that pressure toward message, toward simple sense-making, in music?

JC: We don’t have the same burden, but I think our analog might be “accessibility” in music—it might not “make sense” to listeners if it doesn’t use tonalities, melodies, and timbres they’re used to. But as artists, we strive to produce something novel, so in a certain sense we need to strike a balance between what is familiar and what is fresh. I can’t say I ever consciously consider this when composing, though—I generally make music that I myself like, and hope the audience will follow.

DM: Hoping the audience will follow can be its own kind of generosity, I think. Even if a piece of music (or a poem) presents new challenges or uncertainties, it’s giving a listener or reader the opportunity to participate in making meaning or pleasure or an experience with the artist.

JC: I’m reminded here of Joseph Beuys’s frustration with the usage of the word “understanding” in art. He makes the point that an audience shouldn’t try to understand. The word “under-stand” places us outside of the art—the art is one place, we are under it—while we should instead strive to be in the art, and the art should be within us. That’s what I strive for with my music—a kind of cohabitation between the sound and the listener.

DM: I like thinking of art as a relationship that way—a living-with and existing-in.

ZS: The pieces in Terrain do that musically: they “live with” themselves, so we hear notes and phrases and themes recur, come apart, ricochet around. The song Greg worked on, “Ripple the Sky,” has a similar relationship to materials from research. Greg, how did research influence the piece?

GB: Jacob suggested writing about the composer Robert Schumann’s descent into madness and his attempted suicide, and quite early on I started sensing an affinity between Schumann and Shakespeare’s Ophelia. The water imagery, the flower imagery, the obsession with song, the troubling of language—all of these were present in both Schumann’s biography and Ophelia’s story. We discovered that Schumann was obsessed with lists and often wrote them in his diary. He listed Shakespeare’s plays and also “Shakespeare’s Frauen.” Hamlet was missing from the list of plays, and Ophelia was missing from the list of women. It seemed he had avoided looking directly at her, his twin in madness, aloneness, and pain. But then we learned that he had written a song about her. And here’s the weirdest and coolest detail by far: on the day he was taken to the asylum, Schumann clutched a bouquet of flowers and ceremoniously gave them away, one by one—reenacting a moment from Ophelia’s story.

ZS: The music in the piece evokes water, flowers, and other elements of nature. But its sounds are also based in contemporary digital technology. Is that combination deliberate?

JC: That duality is something I initially struggled with conceptually: why should a piece about someone from two centuries ago depend so heavily on sounds obviously produced by today’s technology? But I eventually came to grips with the fact that my musical voice as a whole is so dependent on that technology; and ultimately “Ripple the Sky” is not a piece about Schumann, but our (mine and Greg’s) artistic tangent on what could have been going on in Schumann’s mind the moment he jumped into the Rhine.

GB: Yeah, to use an example: those lists I mentioned above, Schumann reportedly made them obsessively in his final months to keep his mind from swarming. This moved me to tap into the age-old tradition of listing in poetry. And the libretto obviously evinces that, but lists lurked behind the scenes, too, often from Schumann’s letters, and they were messily interesting. Here’s one I put together early in the writing process. We ultimately found the title here, by reimagining the grammar of the final phrase:

only the tips of my wings

stared so pale and dumb

if I cannot fix a time

no more rain the ruins

angel’s lisp

a foaming panther

not a ripple, the sky

DM: Wait, is that your text, or Schumann’s?

GB: Those are all phrases I cut from his letters.

DM: Holy . . . wow. We’re having this conversation mid-pandemic, and I keep making lists trying to keep a sense of normalcy and order. In “Expiation,” there’s a speaker trying to create ritual to gain some sense of control, which is a kind of listing too, step-by-step in the face of vastness and chaos. Maybe there’s something about the scale of Jacob’s music that lends itself to trying to wrap our heads around the vastness through grounding poetic techniques like litany (rooting the listener in multiple specifics), and imagery and sensory detail (inviting the listener to engage with other senses in addition to listening), and metaphor (connecting big abstractions with life on a tangible scale).

JC: There’s a famous anecdote about Sibelius and Mahler arguing—Sibelius said that a symphony should revolve around a single element that is constantly reinvented, while Mahler replied that a symphony should contain a vast world of elements. I think my music often imagines those two poles as compatible—zooming so far in on a single element that its reach becomes infinite.

GB: That brings us back to the idea of listing: iterating on a theme in order to achieve both unity and variety. In a sense this turns an often-expressed idea on its head: a lot of poets, when they think of the list poem, might think first of Whitman, and Whitman gets associated with a breaking down of order because he was an early and prominent purveyor of free verse, often in the form of lists. Some traditionalists worried that moving away from meter, rhyme, and stanzaic form would rob poetry of its musicality and durability. But here, the list, as we’re imagining it, becomes a source of order.

ZS: Yes, but it’s a source of flexible order. For “Terrain,” Jacob said he hoped the lines could combine and separate in varied ways. We started with lines that could be discrete, modular. But as we proceeded, we began to see groupings, such as “naturalist imagery,” “slight surrealism,” “questions.” He asked me to then write into those categories. In the piece, repetition and refrain add order, but they also suggest what Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti called in her album notes “striving to hold on to brief moments” that are fleeting. And so, what first sounds like a calm observation can become desperate, or plaintive. Again, that’s an effect that isn’t in “my” text on its own. But it showed me a quality, or potentiality, that’s under the surface of my writing.

DM: I recently reread old drafts and notes from both “Unspun” and “Expiation,” and I’ll be honest that I was surprised at how much of the unused material I wanted to rework into “my own” poetry. I haven’t done it yet, but the distinction between “mine” and “ours” felt much blurrier than I remembered. I got myself into the mindset where I really loved and welcomed the separation between my work with Jacob and my other writing. I think I turned off my individual “poetry brain,” because I didn’t want to be poaching lines I liked for poems instead of sending them to Jacob as lyrics! I wanted to have a more generous sense of being in the moment and giving myself fully to the collaboration, but now I’m sifting through the remainders after the collaboration’s conclusion.

GB: Partly owing to the momentum from my collaboration with Jacob, I’ve been writing a lot of songs lately, which has given me a chance to embrace something that Dora touched on earlier: namely, that the job of the lyricist comes with a lighter burden of exposition. In Ripple the Sky, so much of the meaning gets expressed not by my words but by Theo’s weird and wonderful vocal delivery.

ZS: Jacob, what was the process like, working with the singers Theo Bleckmann and Jodie Landau on these pieces?

JC: In addition to being amazing vocalists themselves, Jodie and Theo also write their own songs and, unlike me, sometimes even write their own lyrics. So they certainly brought a broad awareness to singing these texts.

ZS: They have distinct voices, but similarities. How would you describe that, musically?

JC: Well perhaps most noticeably, they’re both straight-tone singers. “Classical” singers are taught to use vibrato, partly because it allows for greater projection in large acoustic spaces. I probably am attracted to straight-tone singing mostly because I grew up listening to “popular,” studio-recorded music, but it also just seems so much more natural to me. I mean, I love working with voice partly because of the sense of intimacy it offers: no matter what the text is, a singer will likely draw you in more than an instrument—it’s like you’re having a conversation with them. And if they’re singing with wild vibrato, that sense of intimacy and conversation is gone.

ZS: I love the effect of that in moments like the beginning of “Expiation.” The line (“I carved the air to make two doorways”) is grand, even fantastical, but the delivery is disarmingly casual.

DM: I trusted Jacob that I could “go grand” at that point without it sounding over-the-top in its final form; he wanted a speaker that felt almost prophetic. It’s not a voice I would have channeled for “my own” page, and I felt pretty distant from it initially, but when I heard a recording of Jodie singing it for the first time, I felt really connected. There was almost a feeling of escaping my own body. I suppose I have that vicarious physicality listening to all music, but hearing words that I’d had such an intimate part in bringing to life soar like that was an amazing feeling.

JC: I rely on that vicarious physicality all the time!

DM: Working with actual music is a constant reminder that when writers talk about “musicality,” it’s really just a metaphor for a particular kind of pleasure. It might be more accurate to call it sonic patterning, or phonic echo (Alfred Corn uses this term), but those don’t sound as appealing as musicality. I’m often trying to access a full register of “musicality” through wordplay and sonic density, but hearing your mockups when we work together reminds me that I can trust the music itself to be, well, musical, and I can tone some of that play down in the language.

JC: Right–I love how your own poetry masterfully twists the tongue, so it was interesting when we realized that your linguistic density isn’t so comfortable in my music.

DM: When I’m writing poetry, I’m often using assonance and alliteration and rhyme—lots of dense sound recombination. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this density can be unnecessarily challenging for a singer and unnecessary for a composer. I had to streamline my inclinations and become more judicious in my patterning. I had to think outside of myself. And even single-syllable words can have such different qualities in the singing body. For example, I used the word “smashed” in an early draft of “Expiation,” and Jacob asked if I could find a word that wasn’t as hard to sing on a quick note. We tried “split,” and it worked. Writing with Jacob was an invitation to experience language in a different way, adapting my favorite tools to different kinds of work.

ZS: People often talk about collaboration as offering a kind of “third mind” or “third voice” that exceeds any of its components. But Dora might be suggesting that to generate this excess, one needs to streamline, to scale back. Not 2 + 2 = 5 but 2 + 1 = 5? Vastness, as Jacob suggested, can be generated through limited elements. So we come together, and we become more than ourselves, by understanding the limits of a form and how we can work together in it. Or not by “understanding” the limits—by living with them, until something grows there.