Andrew Hincapie interviews writers and musicians
Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam and Peter Brewer
STRANGE MONSTERS IS a music and words collaboration of fiction and poetry set to contemporary jazz. Read by actors, Stufflebeam’s stories create a world where the fantastic becomes familiar. In these six tracks, each set to one of Brewer’s musical compositions, women challenge traditional fairy tale roles and find their voices in unexpected places: Rumpelstiltskin’s wife endures police questioning regarding the disappearance of a local boy; a group of deadbeat friends in love with the same woman encounter the skeletons of various extinct animals on a doomed camping trip; and a cursed ballerina longs to do nothing but dance while forced to contend with two men: her obsessed fan and the jealous director of the ballet company. Brewer wrote each musical composition to accompany each story, and these layered pieces use a blend of traditional small-group jazz with clarinet, bass clarinet, flugelhorn, and unique sound effects like silverware and animal noises.
Much of the written work from this album has previously appeared in various literary journals (Hobart’s, Lakeside Circus, etc.). How did you decide which written pieces to reinterpret musically, or was the music written separately and then adapted to language?
Most were chosen for practical reasons. I wanted to use reprints so as not to give away first-publication rights, so I combed through my published stories and rated them on certain criteria: first of all, they needed to be shorter pieces. It was going to be difficult for a band to sustain anything much more than ten minutes, which narrowed it down to stories up to 2,500 words or so. Then, I wanted the stories to fit the theme of imperfect but strong women protagonists. Then I thought about what would be the most fun for Peter, my partner and the composer, to adapt to music. Anything with multiple voices, anything that would allow him to assign certain melodies to certain elements.
So “The Stink of Horses,” a story told in quotes from four different characters, was an obvious choice; since it’s about a ballerina who is dancing The Sleeping Beauty, Peter arranged Tchaikovsky’s waltz. “Mrs. Stiltskin,” told in a Q&A format, allowed him to assign two different instruments to the two different voices. “Where You Came From” allowed him to assign a refrain for the flashbacks to the main character’s home town.
Some of these poems and songs have been performed on stage in front of live audiences. What risks and rewards are there in translating written work to a live performance, especially when multiple artists are involved?
All aspects of the performance were challenging, though our top-notch performers made the process run smoothly. The jazz musicians are used to improvisation, but what they’re not used to is playing over a reading of a lengthy piece of fiction. One of the pieces is over ten minutes, a lengthy stretch. The actors are used to performing, but not so much in working in such direct collaboration with musicians. If they stumble over a word, they have to pick themselves back up immediately. So the timing is risky.
What’s rewarding, for me at least, is hearing these characters brought to life in real-time. In the studio, we’re overdubbing, correcting mistakes. But in front of an audience, it’s live and in front of you, the actors and the musicians responding to the emotion of the piece, letting themselves get caught up. The first time we performed “Mrs. Stiltskin” with Natalia Borja and Christopher David Taylor, I felt moved again by the material. That rarely happens for me once a piece is finished, especially when I’ve heard it over and over again.
The musicians in each song often play in conversation with the spoken words, as if the two distinct parts of music and language may have been co-written as cohesive performance pieces. How do you see the vocals and instrumentals interacting with each other beyond just having background music for your words?
They’re very much intertwined. I don’t think of the music as background at all; it’s as much a part of these pieces now as the words. In fact, it’s difficult for me to read these stories without the music now. I find myself matching the cadence of the actors and the pacing set by the music, rather than reading them the way I would have before Strange Monsters.
What was the overall process in deciding which instruments to use for each song (especially the recording of silverware and your cat, Gimli)?
Peter can speak to that:
I wanted to use a jazz quartet for the bulk of the music since that’s my background; I could give the quartet fewer details, and the music would still work. That lifted a lot of the pressure off of me to write a solid hour’s worth of music. I was able to give the quartet repeated sections where they improvised to keep it interesting.
I also wanted the poems to stand out, so I decided that piece should be solo piano. It turns out that the track sounded empty in comparison to all the other pieces with full instrumentation. I wanted to add more textures and had a lot of fun doing it. I added a few things to each poem to differentiate them. So ‘Dining with Echoes’ got silverware, ‘Kites’ got a trumpet effect for a ‘kaw’ and, when I couldn’t convince my cat to stay quiet while I was recording, I decided to use her screams as the sound of the souls in ‘The Ferryman.’ It was all to add some variety and intrigue that fit with the poems.
This is an album about people, about character voices and the interactions between them. And even within the stories themselves, the narrative often relies on dialogue and conversation to carry the action forward. How do you see this conversational tone reinforcing the collaboration between speaker and audience?
You’re right that several of the stories present like overheard conversations. That gives the album a similar feel to gossip overheard on the street. Particularly in “The Stink of Horses,” that gossipy, tabloid-fodder feel is important to how I want the audience to experience the story. Particularly in audio fiction, dialogue works well to bring the audience as close to the characters as possible. The best stories are about people, relatable or not.
Although the album does emphasize character and narrative, poetic verse also has a place within this collection (particularly in the medley-style track Selected Poems). How does this relationship between lyric and narrative create a single cohesive voice for you in this album?
Lyric and narrative have always gone hand-in-hand for me, so it was obvious to include the poetry with the short stories. I’ve always written from a poetic perspective, heavily emphasizing rhythm and metaphor and various other poetic elements. Particularly in these stories—which deal with issues of feminine, artistic, and sexual identity between-the-lines rather than overtly—it was important for me to write lyrically, to give these women a poetic eloquence in the face of adversity.
In fact, many of these stories were originally written as non-narrative poems, and after I’d explored the themes in poetry, I explored them in fiction, sometimes using whole lines from the poems, whole images.
Many stories in the album detail intimate perspectives of personal relationships, whether they appear as romantic interactions, authoritative interrogations, or even resistance to sexual advances. Was this emphasis on direct human interaction a conscious choice, and if so, how do you see this character interaction reinforcing the album’s collaborative efforts?
It wasn’t conscious, but I suspect it was inevitable, as most of my fiction and poetry is about direct human interaction. Like many writers, I’m inundated with empathy, to the point where I struggle with anxiety and depression partly as a response to much of what I see in the media.
I therefore write about people first and foremost, how they hurt and love and help others. Human experience is one big collaboration. Writing reflects the human experience, whether it comes from fantasy or realism.
The Stink of Horses incorporates quotations from Anton Chekhov, and even strips down the melody of Tchaikovsky’s waltz from the Sleeping Beauty ballet. In what ways do you see these famous voices contributing to the overall collaboration of this piece beyond just functioning as epigraphs?
The Chekhov quote, at the beginning of “The Stink of Horses,” is a real Chekhov quote. I read it in David Remnick’s The New Yorker piece on the Bolshoi acid attack on Sergei Filin. It’s what inspired the story in the first place. I started thinking, “But what if ballerinas were literally horses?” Because that’s how weird ideas come to light: by great leaps of imagination.
It’s difficult for me to speak now about this story on its own, as I’m currently working on expanding it into a novel; Chekhov is an important character within the novel, and his voice is a major contribution. In the case of the lone story, however, I think both the inclusion of a familiar, true-life character and the recognizable melody contribute to the meta aspect, blending the real and the fabulist. You have these fictional characters denying the fantastical aspect of the story, but you have Chekhov—a credible and historical voice—confirming it. I love the dissonance there.
This album demonstrates an interest in subverting the traditional narratives of popular fairy tales, and provides the reader/listener a more intimate account of what really happened to these characters (Dancers/ Sleeping Beauty, Rumplestilkin’s wife, etc.). Why do you find it important to allow these women a chance to voice their “side” of the story?
In general I think women and villains aren’t given the nuance they’re due in fairy tales. Fairy tales depict flat characterizations: archetypes and caricatures over fully-realized three-dimensional people with their own pains, their own wants, their own needs. As a child, of course, those flat depictions are a balm to the evils of the world; they say heroes are good and villains are bad. But when I read those stories now, my imagination runs wild.
I want to flesh out motivations for characters who were given only cursory motives in the originals. I have an itch to give those characters after-lives. And more than anything, I want to give all the fairy tale women a voice that they may not have gotten before.
What are some of the challenges (and delights, as well) in working with such a wide group of writers, musicians, and performers to create a single cohesive project?
I can’t think of many challenges we encountered working with this particular group of creatives other than the practical challenges of scheduling so many people. Even then, we had a core group of musicians—the quartet—come into the studio one day while the rest came in to record overdubs.
The actors all came in separately, except for Christopher and Moria, who did “Mrs. Stiltskin” and recorded theirs together. Everyone we worked with was laidback and hyper-competent and loved the project enough that they were willing to help out as much as they were able. We were thrilled with how easily everything went once we got down to recording, really. I couldn’t imagine a better group of artists.
Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam‘s fiction and poetry has appeared in over 40 magazines and anthologies such as The Toast, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, SmokeLong Quarterly, Hobart, and Goblin Fruit. She lives in Texas with her partner and two literarily-named cats – Gimli and Don Quixote. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program. She also created and coordinates the annual Art & Words Collaborative Show in Fort Worth, Texas, and her work can be found online at BonnieJoStufflebeam.com.
Peter Brewer is the owner and operator of Easy Brew Studio. He holds a BM in Jazz Studies from the University of North Texas and an MM in Jazz Studies from the University of Oregon. he has performed with many groups, including the UNT 2 O’Clock Lab Band, Cas Hailey, Amanda Palmer, and Donny McCaslin. His arrangements and original pieces have been performed for the Oregon Jazz Ensemble featuring musicians such as Dan Balmer and Steve Wilson. Information of his studio can be found online at EasyBrewStudio.com.