Norman Meehan (piano)
Hannah Griffin (vocals)
Colin Hemmingsen (reeds)
Nick van Dijk (trumpet)
e. e. cummings (words)
Norman Meehan is a well-established composer, performer and educator. In 2007 he chose a selection of poems by Edward Estlin Cummings and began setting them to music. Two years later, Sun Moon Stars Rain was the result. Working with three of his favorite musicians, Norman has written a series of compositions that reflect the quiet, playful and transcendent aspects of Cummings' work. Six of the pieces are songs; the other six are instrumental variations inspired by Cummings' words. The music is open and spacious, leaving room for the musicians to stretch out and explore, and for the listener to enter into the performances. Sun Moon Stars Rain is filled with the wonder and joy that flowed from E. E. Cummings' poems. These marvelously conceived and performed songs and interludes delicately balance composition and improvisation, classical and jazz.
In 2010, Norman took this idea further by collaborating with one of New Zealand's best loved poets, Bill Manhire. Recorded for Rattle, Buddhist Rain was a great success. Working again with musicians Hannah Griffin and Colin Hemmingsen, and sound engineers Neil Maddevar and Steve Garden, Norman and Bill created a beautiful work indeed, and a perfect companion-piece to Sun Moon Stars Rain.
"Using a carefully chosen palette of solo instrumental colours to complement the sublime vocals of Hannah Griffin, pianist-composer Norman Meehan has created a stunning series of inspired settings for the poetry of E. E. Cummings. An outstanding production on every level." – Mike Nock
ATTAR-CD 1004 (2009)
Production: Keith Hill, Norman Meehan
All songs © Norman Meehan 2009
NORMAN MEEHAN ON THE MUSIC
What attracted you to the poetry of E.E. cummings?
It’s very ‘musical’, and to me quite evocative. I don’t really understand a lot of his poems (although the ones I’ve set make some sense to me) and that abstruseness is definitely part of the attraction.
Why this instrumentation and sparseness of approach, ie. no rhythm section?
I guess because I like that sound. The concept was a very ‘European jazz’ one – think of (German record label) ECM. Also, the poems themselves are very spare, elegant things, with everything superfluous stripped away. I’ve tried to go for that with the music and performances. I think the sound that Neil Maddever (who recorded the group) and Steve Garden (who produced the disc) have achieved goes a long way to really making that sonic austerity work so beautifully.
Why these other musicians?
Well, the original concept was for trio of piano, voice and trumpet, and in fact for Hannah and Nick and I. Hannah is my favourite singer in New Zealand, and Nick is one of my favourite musicians anywhere, so when they agreed to do the project I was really thrilled. Colin was added closer to the first performance when I realised I wanted a slightly different sound in the mix – and the woodiness of his clarinet is a perfect foil to Nick’s trumpet.
Who are the musicians who inspire you the most?
Miles Davis is the one for me. Lots of reasons for that, but a lot of it is to do with the way his music kept moving and evolving and developing and reflecting the times he lived in. I don’t love everything he did, but I love the spirit of most of his music. Other people I really admire are Paul Bley, Nick van Dijk and Ornette Coleman (between about 1957 and 1970) because they make a wonderful sound and play things that I find surprising and funny. I like Messiaen's music a lot, and Bach – especially the sacred music – and some Ligeti too. Norma Winston is a singer I listen to regularly, and I really dig Bjork and Radiohead and, some days anyway, Jethro Tull and Gentle Giant.
Where do you see this music sitting in terms of jazz?
I don’t know about jazz. There are certainly jazz musicians mining these ideas. Steve Swallow, Frank Carlberg, Steve Lacy, Suzanne Abbuehl (who has also set some Cummings), Luciana Souza, lots of others. And there’s no question in my mind that Colin and Nick are jazz musicians, so maybe it’s jazz by association? There are some feels on the album that are jazz – on ‘Tumbling Hair’ for example, which is a kind of blues. There is improvisation on pretty well every track, and lots of interaction between the musicians. So all of that is kind of ‘jazz’. But the vibe of the music is in some ways closer to chamber music or art song.
Why this musical direction for you?
It's probably because it’s something I haven’t done much of, and because the idea of it intrigues me. The music I like best is often spare and restrained, and this context provided a great opportunity to try and play that way. Also, I really like songs and listen to music with words a lot at home. My own lyrics are really crap, so by setting poems I could find some really great words and try to fit them with music. It has been fun, and as well as the Cummings poetry, I have been working on poems by Bill Manhire. So far Hannah, Colin and I have performed a couple of concerts of that music too. It’s a little earthier than the Cummings music, which is mainly about the meanings of the poems themselves I think.
How has the project ended up sounding to you?
I think the music is lovely and Hannah, Colin and Nick perform wonderfully. Making the record was a pleasure – Neil is a terrific engineer and knows how to get good results out of musicians, and we had fun in St Andrew’s on the Terrace where we recorded the music. It was quite humbling to hear how wonderful they were able to make my music sound – thank you, guys.