Brian Turner’s poetry, of which I first knew Here, Bullet (2005), does what the best literature always does: it serves as a conscience of our times. Turner got his MFA from the University of Oregon and subsequently enlisted in the American military, serving initially in the Balkan crisis of the 1990s and later in the first Iraq war (where he was an infantry team leader). He then turned his military experience into visceral recollections and refractions on the page, first in two poetry collections and then in a memoir, My Life as a Foreign Country (2014). Turner’s work consoles in its refusal to look away from the hard truths of American adventuring abroad, and it is unique in finding a psychic language to articulate what we have lost there.
It turns out that as he was writing, Brian Turner was also making music. He seems to have begun as a punk and a partisan of rock and roll, but has since moved outward, into the realm of electronic music, among other genres. None of this should be very surprising: Both poets and musicians are required to cultivate a kind of sonic attention. There are other poets who are fine musicians (Cornelius Eady is a good example). And poetry is often set to music with great success (Turner himself has been set to music by the composer Jake Runestad). But Turner’s music-making became a true analogue to his poetry practice in the space of grief. His new album, 11 11 (Me, Smiling), attributed to the Interplanetary Acoustic Team, celebrates and preserves the work of Ilyse Kusnetz, his late wife and a fellow poet, and acts, he says, as an “anchor to her, to her voice, her narration to her own journey.”
Indeed, 11 11 (Me, Smiling) is a collaboration with Kusnetz, who was a feminist and post-humanist concerned with justice and with what is beyond the body. Turner wrote and plays a lot of the music, and on these tracks even sings along with Kusnetz herself—beautiful spoken and sung vocals that were recorded prior to her death. The result is up-tempo, funky, with horns and R&B guitar and drum machines and synthesizers—sort of like the Average White Band mixed with Kraftwerk; sort of like Can if it subsumed Earth, Wind, and Fire; sort of like My Life In the Bush of Ghosts, by David Byrne and Brian Eno, but with greater literary aspiration than one finds on that album.
Of course, none of these comparisons gets it right. 11 11 (Me, Smiling) brings Kusnetz close—not just her literary voice, but her person—and does so in the context of some very original electro-acoustic grooves. Here, Turner has created, as he says in the interview that follows, “a sonic landscape in conversation with her thoughts,” and particularly her thoughts on human consciousness and the digital universe. As a writer who also experiments with music, I was excited to talk to Turner about the genesis of this project and the role of music in his literary practice. We did so by email in late June.
—Rick Moody for Guernica
Guernica: Let’s begin at the beginning. When did you conceive of this project? Did you ever think about making music to accompany Ilyse’s work while she was still healthy? Or did it primarily come out of a desire to celebrate her and her writing after she was gone?
Brian Turner: I think it was November, or early December, 2016. I was flying west, one coast to another, thinking about her poem “Before I Am Downloaded into a Most Excellent Robot Body.” In that poem, she says, “In case I forget to tell you, 10 01 is binary for a sigh. 11 11 is me, smiling.” I spent the next couple of hours mapping out the album (though of course it changed considerably in the making). I was trying to visualize her journey—and, at a root level, I simply wanted to listen to her as she made her way into the universe.
Over the years, Ilyse sang on a couple of other projects I’ve done—things I’ve put on the back burner but hope to share at some point. I kept trying to coax her into singing more and taking the lead with the music I was working on, but I think she was trying to give me space to create new friendships here in Orlando (and help me avoid being such a hermit!). She often mentioned that her vocal cords weren’t in the same shape as when she was younger. I’d heard her sing on our road trips and in the house throughout the day, and she had such a lovely voice that I couldn’t see why she wouldn’t join me in the studio to record more often. I knew that she’d been a serious vocalist while earning her PhD at the University of Edinburgh, but I didn’t realize how dedicated to the craft she was until I turned our house upside down searching for audio files and recordings of her. I found old cassettes with her voice lessons recorded, sheet music she’d studied, and more. I was floored by it all.
And I was lost, too, and in many ways still am. This music has served as a kind of anchor to her, to her voice, her narration to her own journey.
While I do want to celebrate, and I think this album has a tremendous celebratory lift to it, I definitely don’t want to create art that serves as a kind of tombstone for her. And so I’ve tried to find a way to collaborate with her here, rather than approaching this as a type of portraiture. One of the subjects that fascinated her and that she spoke of often had to do with robots, the mapping of the human mind, and the crossing of the digital divide—basically, the uploading of human consciousness. In the recordings of her (from poetry readings, radio interviews, recordings she’d done as a journalist, etc.), I tried to isolate this one narrative thread from among many—and to create a sonic landscape in conversation with her thoughts.
Guernica: I want to talk about music in your literary practice generally. Can you go through the role that music has played for you over the years?
Turner: I played trumpet from elementary school on, and then picked up the bass while forming a rock back (The Dead Guys) right out of high school in the San Joaquin Valley, California. Music and writing have overlapped throughout the years for me, with some years spent leaning more toward the page. I like to write and be awake late at night, when most of the world is asleep around me, as it’s the quietest time in the 24-hour cycle, with fewer distractions. As I think about your question, though, I can see on my desktop there’s a file called “Music for Writing” (with lots of albums in it, but nearly all of them instrumentals, or albums with vocals that don’t articulate words—like David Byrne’s The Forest).
Sometimes when I write I’ll play a song on a loop so that it quickly becomes a kind of sonic wallpaper, but the mood and tone of the music influences the atmosphere and tonal palette of the language I’m crafting. I think this influence is most apparent in the vowels and syllabic construction taking place on the page. The reader doesn’t have access to the music being played, but there’s a kind of silent root note, almost like a watermark, embedded in the pages of text written this way.
In terms of rhythm… I believe the human body is the instrument of the song, and the language we speak and listen to all day long—whether profound or mundane—reinforces rhythmic and sonic possibilities for those of us who write. Of course, what I’m saying isn’t something new or something I’ve discovered. But I love listening to everyday conversation and then isolating it and studying it to find the rhythmic pulses and beats within it. It’s important that poets do this, as it informs their work and it helps them to be consciously in the act of creating a music that suits our time on the planet.
Guernica: Can you sketch out the musical past you have gravitated toward as a player and songwriter, particularly as a way into talking about the specific idioms that were necessary for this project?
Turner: As a bass player, I’ve always loved Paul McCartney’s melodic lines and tone, like on “Don’t Let Me Down.” I think the switch from the trumpet to the bass guitar lead me naturally to lean more toward melody than rhythm in my playing—so I often played with my ear pulled more toward the guitar instead of locking into the drums, as most bassists do.
My earliest memories of music are connected to the ’60s and early ’70s: Joe Cocker’s first album, Sly & the Family Stone, Hendrix, Santana… The list is great and mighty. I think of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, Alan Price’s soundtrack to O Lucky Man! And that underscores the large-scale compositional structures I’m drawn to the most. Besides Bowie (Ziggy Stardust, of course, but also Hunky Dory) and Pink Floyd, I gravitate to Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots by The Flaming Lips, Beck’s Sea Change, Rjd2, Air, Thievery Corporation, Radiohead, Andrew Bird, Ólafur Arnalds, and Neil Halstead (Oh Mighty Engine).
I used to load a pipe for Ilyse and she’d smoke to ease the pain while we’d stay up until dawn listening album by album to Iron and Wine. Such bittersweet moments held in memory. Three a.m. moments. The music transporting us song by song to summers gone by. Something about the layered strumming of acoustic guitars overlaid with nuanced vocal harmonies. Something about the wide and atmospheric fields that great music and great recordings create.
I sing and play a variety of instruments on the album (modular synthesizers, bass guitar, acoustic and electric guitars, and flugelhorn). Every song is a collaboration with Ilyse, and also a collaboration with so many incredible people and musicians: Benjamin Kramer; Jared Silvia; Sunil Yapa; Stephen Leathley; Hello Ocean from Sweden; The Parkington Sisters from Massachusetts; Sarah Cossaboon; Cameron Dezen Hammon; and even Arlo Cherry, whose heartbeat was recorded while he was still in utero. They each brought so much love to this music.
Oddly, I had a very limited knowledge of the electronic music scene when I set out to make this album. I’d heard of Kraftwerk, for example, but had never really listened to them, and I didn’t know anything about the kosmiche Musik/cosmic music scene. That said, while making the album and learning about modular synths from Jared Silvia and through research, I dug into some early Dutch electronic music pioneers. I feel a great affinity for the work of Tom Dissevelt—check out Popular Electronics: Early Dutch Electronic Music from Philips Research Laboratories (1956-1963). I’ve even tucked away a nod to Dissevelt in one of the songs, though I won’t tell anyone which one it is!
There are also other surprises I hope listeners might discover and enjoy. For example, in “The Stars” there’s a faint and trembling marimba-like sound in the background. Just a few years ago, one of Benjamin Kramer’s close friends passed away at a young age. He’d been a scientist, and brilliant, and I asked Ben if he might share one of his friend’s scientific papers. I then converted a short passage from this into Morse Code; we took that and converted it into a midi signal and replaced it with a soft marimba. And so, in a way, Ben’s friend is with us all in this song, speaking to us as I sing Ilyse’s words: “The stars are beautiful… silver reminders… oh, the stars are beautiful… inside our souls…”
Guernica: I’m really interested in the electronic/synthetic element here. Can you bear down on synthesis, and why and how that became an inevitable piece of this project? How did you decide that this was going to have some of the features of electronic music, and how did you become a person who could make that sort of music?
Turner: I think the turn to modular synthesizer was a direct response to the needs of the language. The way I imagined the arc of Ilyse’s narrative, how it shifts from the uploading of consciousness to the crossing of a kind of physical divide (from the organic to the digital world)—that cued me to lean toward music derived from the electrical signal and the circuit board. Song by song the lyrics seemed to leave not only the body but the planet itself. If we had to travel into the digital world, I thought, then modular synthesis seemed the natural answer. The synths can have a kind of cold presence to them sometimes, something like the void, or the indifference we might read into the workings of a machine. Blending these qualities with the warmth of strings and the human voice mirrors the journey that Ilyse sings of. I’ve always been fascinated by psychophysiology, and studied some briefly in college, and in this musical project I’m intrigued by the correspondences between neural networks (with their electrical fields) and the circuitry involved in modular synthesis. The landscape of thought. The landscape of the imagination. That kind of thing.
Before I knew I’d be creating modular synth parts on my own, Jared Silvia loaned me a littleBits Synth Kit from Korg (designed as a children’s toy), and that gave me several quick insights into some of the basics of synthesis: voltage, sequencing, step generation, oscillation, the manipulation of wave forms, and more. I was soon hooked and picked up an incredibly dynamic and beautiful instrument, the 0-Coast, which is a voice-patchable synthesizer from Make Noise. I wanted to learn how to create my own Krell patch (like on the soundtrack from Forbidden Planet in 1956)—not only because it’s a great challenge and because it would help me to understand the properties of the instrument, but because the nature of the Krell patch gestures toward the infinite, the immortal. Basically, I was looking for musical tools to help me respond and partner with Ilyse. And I needed instruments that could attempt to answer questions posed by the imagination.
Guernica: How about the singing? I suspect from things you’ve said that the singing was demanding. Or I could be projecting here, because, having sung myself on recordings now for more than ten years, I still feel self-conscious and uncertain. I love a great many “bad” singers, like Richard Hell, or Shane McGowan, or Joe Strummer, or Lou Reed, or Lucinda Williams, or Jimi Hendrix—singers whose weaknesses have, by virtue of commitment and persistence, become very powerful and effective. Have you made a journey like that as a singer? How did your singing become effective? I love your voice, which reminds me of Terry Kath, or Jackson Frank, a soulful baritone.
Turner: Terry Kath? Man, oh, man. That’s a big-hearted voice. My own voice is such an imperfect thing. I might be too far inside of the recording to objectively consider it as an instrument in the music. But maybe that’s not for me to do anyways. Our art has to live on its own once we share it with the world. Even as I say that, though… I did worry that my voice would be the one element that would drag the whole thing down. I could’ve found a great voice to sing the parts I sang, I’m certain, but I don’t think that even crossed my mind. I think it’s because singing on this album was one of the things that made me feel closer to Ilyse. It’s one of the few things that has helped me to not feel so lost in the world.
The physical practice of singing sometimes connects us to something one might call the sacred. The body can be an instrument of the sacred. An instrument of meditation. It’s connected to an emotional well, I think, and it’s not fully driven by the neocortex. Of course, we can all sing in the shower or while driving down the road in a car, but standing in front of a microphone in a studio can be a whole different thing altogether. I think it’s important in that moment to connect with the landscape of the song and not to the landscape of the recording studio. Maybe there’s an echo in this that’s connected to creative processes more broadly. The idea of transport and being transported by art. I’m addicted to that experience. Having a familiarity with the studio space and the people in the recording process helps, too. Once all of the microphones and monitors and mixing boards and all of that apparatus is pushed back, like curtains, we’re left standing on a planet spinning through the cosmos around a globe of fire. I’m singing to Ilyse. I’m singing so that she might hear me.
I love your list of bad singers who found a way to create something wonderful with their voices. In some ways, I think I’m drawn to voices that are broken some, and imperfect. I like towns and people and music and landscapes that are broken and imperfect, too. There are gorgeous vocalists that can bring me to tears, of course, but when those with more modest gifts find a way to create something transcendent—that just knocks me out. These voices have a kind of endearing quality to them. It’s like an honest narrator in literature, one who has earned our trust by not hiding flaws and frailty.
There’s an almost alien quality to the modular synths in much of the album, and the human voices create a kind of counterbalance to it. I was buoyed by the many voices that joined in. Ilyse loved The Parkington Sisters and their signature harmonies—so it was such a gift for them to sing on the album, backing Ilyse on the final song (and adding harmonium and doubling my own acoustic parts on a steel string). Hello Ocean sang beautifully nuanced and layered harmonies on two of the songs. They create these wild stacked-chord vocals that shouldn’t work but somehow blend together in astonishing ways. Sarah Cossaboon is an opera singer in Cologne, and that’s her in the kind of warm chorus of “Planetary Bird Engine,” singing with me and Ilyse. Cameron Dezen Hammon, who has a couple of solo albums and hosts The Ish podcast, was kind enough to help my own voice with some ethereal vocals on “Tachyon (Tone Drive).”
There’s so much to say about Ilyse’s vocals, but maybe one insight might give a glimpse into it all. When we were nearly finished recording “Light Sketch” (which includes a kind of “binary chorus’”comprised of twelve of Ilyse’s close friends and family), I discovered a very short and sweet solo voice recording that Ilyse had done on her cell phone in the summer of 2015. The modular synth part I made with the 0-Coast on that song had placed the song in a key that was just slightly off the usual pitch—and Ilyse’s recording matched it perfectly, almost as if she’d somehow heard the song before it existed. That’s her at the very end of the song, singing, a capella.
At the heart of this project sits a spoken-word album, but it feels like so much more than that. I think Ilyse’s vocals transcend the medium, or the genre, I suppose, and because of that the album has its own signature feel, completely due to her lyricism, her way of exploring the spiritual and the cosmic, her way of processing the mystery of death, her way of singing on and off the page.
Guernica: I’m just going to take issue with that thread a bit, and say that I am not sure that I know what “spoken-word album” means anymore. In the era of hip-hop’s dominance, to take one example, the Last Poets don’t look like poets so much as musicians, and the microtonality of spoken words has become much more musical than it was at any other time. There are a lot of rappers who blur the line between the spoken and sung, and that’s a thing that we hear differently than we heard it a generation ago. I really feel like the spoken and the sung on your album are of one piece, not distinct, and definitely musical, beautifully so.
Turner: I’m with you on the over-worked term “spoken word.” I agree. I’m thinking of projects like Seamus Heaney’s The Poet and the Piper CD with Liam O’Flynn, or maybe Rexroth’s Poetry and Jazz from the Blackhawk, or even the latest jazz album just out with Benjamin Boone and Philip Levine (which is an amazing work of jazz and poetry). I suppose I mean the poems on this album started on the page for Ilyse, and much of the album mines her spoken performances. But there it is, right? Performances. It’s as if a poet (me) is forgetting that poetry is music, song. When I entered the album files into the distribution system online (for iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, Pandora, etc.), I was up against a very narrow genre dilemma—forced to typecast the project in order to share it online. Is it electronic music? Is it spoken word? Is it alternative? On Amazon, it’s currently listed as alternative rock, which isn’t anywhere near what’s going on in the music, I don’t think—and it’s not what I listed it under, either. I have no idea how that happened. I’ve been in alternative rock bands, but this project isn’t that.
Guernica: Has this project achieved what you wanted to achieve with music now, or is there more for you to say with your synthesizer, and with your singing voice? And are you done with Ilyse’s recorded archive, or is there more to do there, too?
Turner: I find a small measure of joy, enough to keep me going, in making this music. I’d like to try at least one more album to extend the meditation begun in this one a bit further. Ilyse’s poems are filled with a deep love of the natural world, especially for the small creatures that fly in the air around us. Plants soaking their leaves in sunlight. Water, and the life of water. She reserved the word delight for things like these. I want to learn more about that from her. And so I intend to work on an album that begins to land on foreign planets out in the cosmos, as if charting her onward exploration into the unknown.
I have a third album, already partially recorded, that I plan to call Mixtape: Earth, and that’ll be a kind of throwback album (with elements of funk, rock, disco). My best friend, Brian Voight, who was a songwriter and a guitarist, died of cancer in 2012. Mixtape: Earth is meant to be an homage to him and to his music. Here’s a rough track that hasn’t been mixed-down or mastered yet: “Voight’s Meditation.” The two of us recorded our acoustic guitars in his apartment after I came home from the war and completed my military service. I took the raw acoustic tracks and we added everything else around 2015, I believe—including Ilyse and I singing the backing vocals along with Chantal Thompson. We might put the third album out as a cassette. Who knows. All of this is what’s possible in a day I don’t yet live in.
Right now, I’m pleased by the music and the process of creating music with Ilyse and her words. It brightens the day some. It makes the long nights a little more bearable. When I play the music and she sings, she sings in the present tense. The temporal world recedes. She’s alive. She’s in the room. She’s singing, and I’m singing with her.