Language and Sound: A Review of Cry of Freedom, by Linda Nemec Foster and Laszlo Slomovits

Great art alters our perception of the world around us. It forces us to see things differently, so much so that even our own fundamental character is changed in the process. As rare as truly great art may be, it’s an even rarer phenomenon to encounter a work of art that reaches outside its genre into another artistic form, doing so in a way that provides us with an immersive and transformative sensory experience. Cry of Freedom, a collaboration between poet Linda Nemec Foster and musician Laszlo Slomovits, stands as a convergence of cultures, perspectives, and expressions, melding music and poetry into an effigy of perfectly cooperative art. In this one album, the worlds of language and sound are blended together perfectly.
 
Some poems are stronger on the page, while other poems are stronger when read aloud. For Foster, however, a true poem should balance these two qualities. “I know I always strive and work towards those two components: the poem on the page, and when it’s spoken, the poem in the air,” she said. “It’s very important, because if you don’t have the two, it just doesn’t make for a very strong, honest poem.” This intention, coupled with Slomovits’s musical talent and reverent treatment of the lyrics, gives the album its power.
 
The collaboration’s source material is Foster’s chapbook Ten Songs from Bulgaria (Cervena Barva Press, 2008), a collection of ten-line poems inspired by the photography of Jacko Vassilev, whose work takes the downtrodden people of Bulgaria and Romania as its subject. It was Foster’s intent at the inception of her project, she said, to “give voices to the voiceless,” rendering into words the haunting sense of honesty that resonates throughout all of the photos. On the page, Foster recreates this sense with visual structure, the sparse ten lines of each poem standing in stark contrast to the expanse of negative white space that encompasses the rest of the page.
 
Both the chapbook and the album open with “Two Vladimirs at the Window,” an evocative piece that mimics the observations of two men as they gaze out from a window. The piece makes use of two techniques that bring its haunting nature to the forefront: repetition and a play on size and space. These two techniques can readily be seen in the first half of the piece:
 
          Small lives, small lives,
          we are trapped inside
          small lives. Call this window
          a prison of rotten wood; the hinges
          a broken lock that still won’t release us.
 
The play on size and space is present in the phrase “small lives,” and also in the imagery of the window, its frame serving as a prison for the two men. From the speakers’ perspective inside the prison of the window, they view their lives as constrained and only existing within the confines of the pane and wooden frame. The image is further strengthened by the fact that the window is closed. This small space becomes a preoccupation of the speakers, as “small lives” is repeated several times in the piece.
 
Slomovits easily replicates the repetition of the piece, following Foster’s cue and using the “small lives” lines as the song’s refrain. He then underscores the words with a simple and repetitive piano progression in a minor key, giving the listener a sense of confinement and resignation. Rather than being a witness to the endless possibilities of music through a series of piano flourishes, the stirring repetition entraps the listener in a defined musical environment, much as the men are mentally imprisoned in Foster’s poem.
 
“The Dancing Bear” is a persona poem that occurs later in the chapbook, focusing on the thoughts of a bear trained to dance. The piece is written from the bear’s perspective, opening with the line, “Once upon a time, I did not exist / in this frozen pose. Only danced / in your dreams like a myth.” This opening reiterates the sense of entrapment present at the beginning of the collection. However, rather than using repetition as the main method to communicate this, Foster instead uses imagery and personification to do so in this poem. The manner in which the bear dances within the audience’s dreams, as well as the completion of its reflection, make up the second half of the poem:
 
          bear of elegant waltz and measured
          fox-trot; bear of passionate tango
          and manic jitterbug. Now look at me.
          Reduced to a muzzle and chain, serenaded
          by a fool with a clumsy violin. I refuse
          to dance, cannot remember the basic steps.
          Music of the forest stuck in my throat.
 
By taking on the persona of the bear, Foster forces her audience to treat the piece as a personal correspondence between themselves and the bear. This invites a visceral connection to the bear’s pain and prompts readers to consider how they would feel if they were put into a similar situation. The “humanity” of this bear is furthered by his ability to dance, a gift that his imprisonment has cause him to forget.
 
For his musical rendition of the piece, Slomovits begins and ends the song with another minor-key driven progression, but in the middle of the piece, where the different dances are listed, Slomovits does something interesting: as the name of each dance is read, the music changes to follow suit, and the lines themselves are spaced out to allow for a few measures each music style. The waltz line features elegant, deliberate keystrokes on the piano. The fox-trot hops from one note to the next. The tango exhibits sultry stabs of the keys, while the jitterbug jangles them and prompts a playful burst of the fiddle
 
Another piece, “To Protect Her Property,” opens with a powerful, concrete line: “Because she hasn’t eaten for days.” Immediately, the reader knows that this is an individual in an extraordinary situation. In the poem’s midsection we learn that the woman clings to what little she has “because the door never opens, never closes.” She has neither human connections nor opportunities available to her. The only things she can call here own are what little possessions she owns. The final lines of the poem declare: “because her face ignores its own history / because the world has forgotten and she knows it.” Isolated in the broadest sense of the word, she holds on to her existence by the slimmest of threads.
 
Slomovits picks up on the visceral punch delivered by the lines “because the door never opens, never closes” and “because the world has forgotten and she knows it" and utilizes them as refrains. Combined again with a minor key, the refrain gives the listener a stark illustration of the woman’s life, full of sadness and pain, but also a powerful resolve to live it nonetheless. The song finished with a beautiful piano solo that lasts over a minute and a half, allowing the listener to reflect on the profound message hidden within the seemingly simple lyrics of the piece. Deliberate and poignant, this final musical passage evokes a sense of pacing around a confined space, bare of any decoration, the exact impression that Foster’s poem gives. The music winds on, measure after measure, until it finally slows down to a single resounding keystroke.
 
From reality to photography, photography to poetry, and poetry to music, the raw sorrow and beauty of life, its joys and hollowness, have been captured in these different forms of art. Though they may be separate works, they are united in Cry of Freedom, coming together in a convergence of dynamic artistic expression that deserves our attention.
 
For a deeper look inside this collaboration, be sure to check out our interviews with Linda Nemec Foster (found here), and Laszlo Slomovits (found here).
 
 
Both the poetry chapbook, Ten Songs from Bulgaria, and the CD, Cry of Freedom, are available at Schuler Books and Music.
 
To hear an Interview with Linda and Laszlo about the origin of their collaboration, visit Michigan Radio
 
For more information on Linda and her work, check out lindanemecfoster.com
 
For more information on Laszlo and his work, please check out his website at: geminichildrensmusic.com


Works by Linda Nemec Foster

Through the 3rd Eye was supported in its inception by the Grand Rapids Humanities Council and is currently made possible by continued volunteer effort and private support. Copyright 2013.