Collaborative projects hold a special place in my heart. Bands are one thing, but there’s a big difference between writing an album as a group and piecing together an album from separate individuals. Passing a piece down a line of people to create an artwork does seem a tad cliché, but it continues to hold value as an intimate and communicative way of making art.
Barra Brown for Vortex Music Magazine
Portland, OR multi-instrumentalist Barra Brown recently released Poem Project with Cavity Search Records, an experimental record featuring collaborations with various other musicians from around the country. Brown’s original composition, Poem, is used as a vessel for the musical interpretations of each artist involved in the project. The guidelines for each collaborator were as follows:
The artists were given recordings for the original Poem as well as sheet music
They were asked to write lyrics to the existing melody
The B section has chords but no melody, and the artists were free to compose a melody there.
How the A section and B section are ordered and how many times they are used were completely up to each artist
The artists were asked to record their versions so that each track has a unique sound
The resulting tracks certainly hold that sense of individuality, though the obvious similarities due to the shared original composition ring throughout. The chords sound almost entirely the same in each song with some changes in melody, but the differences in recording, vocals, effects, and selective inclusion of percussion give every one a voice of its own. Most of the tracks also carry quite dreamy qualities, with softly sung lyrics, acoustic strings, and some echoey tones from time to time. I could see myself listening to those on a porch with a cup of coffee on a foggy morning, thinking about my life and the complex beauty of the world.
That similar nature is nice and unifying, though I will note that half the album shares fairly indie-folk sensibilities, with the rest varying in genre more recognizably. Brown’s own introduction, Poem, stands almost as an outlier to the rest of the record; it’s jazz. Wind instruments aren’t present on the rest of the album, (at least from what I could tell,) until a flute appears in Goodbye Good, the second-to-last track. It is fascinating to see how drastically separate Brown’s original rendition is from the other artists’ takes on the composition. It has enough in common with the rest that one can understand the relationships, but the divergence of genres present goes to show how varied even close collaborators and friends can be in their interpretations of material they are presented with.
"Goodbye, Good" (2017) dir. PVPDX
Speaking of variation, I was completely caught off guard by Cycle of No Dreams and So Close in the latter half of the album. I of course noticed the chords and composition like the prior tracks, but the electronic production sticks out like a sore thumb among a sea of dreamy guitar noise. It’s absolutely not a bad thing; the surprising spins on Brown’s composition with more focus on electronic beats is rather refreshing. Cycle of No Dreams has some political charge to it, immediately placing it as an outlier beyond even the jazzy first track, while So Close stands as the shortest and most “lo-fi” of the bunch at just over a minute long.
My personally favorite number is Life in Boxes, recorded by Patti King (of The Shins). It’s almost in the middle of the track list, and it feels like a bridge between much of the other elements present on Poem Project, incorporating a more explicit rhythm with its percussion while also consisting of those familiar dreamy tones.
This record has a lot in common with the modern remix album, though the genres here aren’t what one would normally get from standard remixes. Poem Project’s strength is its balance; everything is tied together through composition, yet every track can also stand entirely on its own. There is a mixing of togetherness and separation, cohesiveness and scattering. Fluctuation between these sensibilities keeps listeners wondering and questioning or relaxing and going with the flow, back and forth constantly. Poem Project is both a clever experiment and an absolute pleasure to listen through.