Ten years ago, I came back to my singing voice. This was a real shift from my previous jazz piano playing/composing, and epic, loud, multifaceted percussion theatre pieces. My first songs I wrote for myself. I started noticing specifics in my voice, how various notes, motifs, etc. sounded. I set some poems that I liked, and tried the piano styles I knew. But soon I found myself overwhelmed.
Luckily, I met Paul around this time. We enjoyed each other’s music, and I began to ask Paul questions about his process, about how to get unstuck. He shared how he studied scores, and pointed me to Schubert lieder. I was taken with the perfection of Schubert’s musical universe — in such a small space, he mapped out a whole world. I wanted to write like that.
A breakthrough came when I was visiting a friend “upnorth,” and I noticed the police report in a small town newspaper. It didn’t have the usual urban terror. It was a little bit off kilter — funny, but with a quiet pathos. I knew that I had to set it. I submitted Northwoods Police Report for tenor, piano, and string bass to a call for scores. It was turned down, and I am eternally grateful that it was, because I found Kim Sueoka instead.
Kim immediately saw the earnestness, the bizarre humor in the texts, and sang with a clarity I had never heard before. Soon I was setting Questions by my fly fishing friend, poet John Minczeski. Paul started calling these pieces “jazz lieder,” as they combined classical lyricism with modern jazz harmonies.
I read Paul’s haiku First Autumn Night, and in my mind’s ear heard Kim’s voice singing it, with no piano. I was struck by how this song worked, its clarity and purity, how the harmony was completely implied by the melody. I returned to writing poetry myself…and “jazz haiku” was born.
These songs are so short and self-contained, turning them into an album posed a real problem. We interspersed them with some new piano pieces, and Paul’s accordion mashups of my songs. After much careful ordering and reordering, a shape revealed itself. We held our breath, listened…and it worked!
I hope this music helps you connect with the larger-than-human world, a place of wonder. I see music and nature inextricably intertwined — I cannot live without either. Many of these songs are set in trout streams. Trout can only survive in wild places with cold, unpolluted water. These places have great, unique and irreplaceable beauty — like the voice of Kim Sueoka.
For the past six years, we have been working together, polishing these ideas. I have never worked this hard on such small pieces of music…and yet I still like to listen to them!
Some things I want you to know: The words to Northwoods Police Report are actual police reports from a small town in Minnesota. (Not saying which one!) Rattlesnake Song #1 is taken from the final paragraph of a newspaper article written by my father. Thoughts at 4 AM was written for Paul, a prodigious night owl, on his 25th birthday. When in Pieces is a found poem. It hangs on a wall in a little house by the Willow River, embroidered and anonymous. As soon as I read it, I heard Kim’s voice singing it.
Kim and Paul have been the most amazing collaborators, who understand the inner geography of my works. They have been able to take my ideas and create a viable musical landscape, no, a vibrant ecosystem.
I cannot thank them enough. I cannot thank you enough! After you listen, I hope you go outside for a while.
released February 1, 2011
Todd Harper: composition (all tracks), piano (7, 16, 20), lyrics (6, 16, 18, 20, 23-25, 28)
Kim Sueoka: voice, co-composition (28)
Paul Cantrell: piano, accordion, co-composition (5, 27-29), lyrics (22), recording and editing
John Minczeski: lyrics (1-4)
Herbert Harper: lyrics (13)
K. Hauk: lyrics (15)
Anonymous: lyrics (8-11, 17, 19, 30)
Mike Olson: mixing and mastering
Peet Fetsch: art & design