On "Cry of Freedom" - An Interview with Laszlo Slomovits

1. What was it about Linda's poetry that attracted you to it, and why did you pursue working on this album in lieu of doing something all your own?
I’ve been setting poetry to music since high school — a long time ago! When I first read Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” it immediately hooked up in my mind with the melody of “Greensleeves” (try it, it works wonderfully!), and I’ve continued setting poems to music throughout my more than 40 year musical career. In fact, I have 5 CDs of the poetry of Rumi and Hafiz, ancient Sufi mystics whose poetry (in translations by Coleman Barks and Daniel Ladinsky) I’ve rendered into song. Actually, that’s quite common in some parts of the world, in ancient times and even now, for singers to set poet’s lyrics to music. So, it’s a time-honored tradition that I’m joining. I do write my own complete songs, but I love finding melodies that — I hope and trust — bring out an added richness in the poems. None of these poems, including Linda’s, need my music — they’re totally fine on their own. But I believe when they’re sung, they can touch us in a different way.
As for what attracted me to these specific poems, well, first of all, they are wonderful poems, very rich in images and in the non-pitying, totally compassionate way they depict their subjects. And though the poems don’t rhyme, they have a very clear form — 10 lines each — and the title of Linda’s book is Ten Songs from Bulgaria. So, she clearly was thinking of them as songs, and I took her literally and went looking for melodies for them. One more thing that attracted me was that her subjects were from Bulgaria. I was born in Budapest, Hungary, and still feel a visceral connection to Eastern Europe.
2. In speaking with Linda, she said that from her perspective, your interpretations of her poems as songs were perfect. What was your approach to setting the poems to music? How did you decide which instruments to use, what lines to set as the refrain, etc.?
In setting poems to music I really try not to have preconceptions, but to let the poems guide me. Sometimes, it clicks very quickly. Other times, I may try various styles of music with a poem — much like someone trying on different clothes in front of a mirror — until the poem says, “Yes! That’s me!” Or, perhaps a better analogy is someone at a dance, dancing with various partners, until they meet someone with whom there is perfect ease and a sense of “rightness.” It's the same with the choice of lines for the refrain, and what lines to repeat when singing them — the poem and the melody start to dance with each other. And in the same way that good dancers don’t push each other around, but do respond to each other, the lyrics and the melody start interacting: how long should this word be held? Which direction should the melody go now? Should this word be repeated, or this whole phrase?
3. Which poem was the easiest for you to work with?
As soon as I read “The Dance of Zlatio Zlatev, Ex-Pilot,” I heard a blues melody with it, and when I started to sing it, it fell right into place. It was totally clear to me which lines would be repeated, as in the standard 12-bar blues form, and which would be the last line, the ”punch line” so to speak, in each verse. The last poem/song, “A Man is a Man when a Man is on the Road," sang to me almost as immediately. In all the others, I sang only the text of the poem, but in this one, I immediately knew that this title was a wonderful refrain for a song. I love all the poems and the songs they’ve become, but if I had to choose just one, this would be it. In this song, my heritage is fused with my upbringing in this country. The song is what I call an Eastern European blues. It’s in a plaintive minor key, like many melodies from Eastern Europe, but it has the grit and the drive we associate with the blues and roots music in this country.
4. Which poem presented the most difficulty?
I wouldn’t call it a difficulty, but “Creativity in Psychiatry Camp: Contrapuntal” was certainly the most challenging. Essentially, it’s three different poems: the one on the left, the one on the right, and the one that results from weaving them both together. It was obvious to me from the moment I saw and read the poem (because it is a very visual poem as well as an auditory one) that it needed a contrapuntal (two-line interwoven melody). In fact, musically, the poem could be sung (and the two melodies be played/sung) in a way that is not possible to read when reciting words. I think Bach, the master of counterpoint, could have figured out two such contrapuntal lines in five minutes! But I am not a classically trained composer; I’m a folk musician. It took me a long time to work out the two melodies, each of which is independent of the other, yet able to be played simultaneously, and at the same time dance with the words in a natural, graceful, and non-herky-jerky way. I learned a lot from that poem!
5. Linda mentioned that you did most of the album without looking at the original Jacko Vassilev photos. When you did finally see them, did they change your interpretation of the poems?
No, actually I felt (and continue to feel) that just as Linda had responded to the photographs with her own personal, unique poetry, I responded to her poems with songs born out of my own musical sensibility, and that all three works are free-standing expressions of art that nevertheless relate to each other in a very friendly way.
6. Anything else you’d like to say about this project?
Yes, I want to give a very special thank you to Linda, both for her wonderful poetry, and for how warmly and generously she responded to my asking permission to set her poems to music. It has been a delight to work with her and to do joint readings of our work. And another special thank you to my inspiring poet friend, Jennifer Burd, who gave me a copy of “Ten Songs from Bulgaria” after meeting Linda on a reading tour. In that amazingly synchronistic way intuitive people know things, Jennifer knew I would love these poems, and she was right. Thank you!
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 Laszlo and his work, please check out his website at: geminichildrensmusic.com

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.