Fitting music to verse: What Is The Beautiful?

The temperaments of the poems of Kenneth Patchen (1911-72) have a wide frequency: they are brave, mystical, honest, funny, smart, tender-hearted, indignant, earnest, absurd, resistant, interior, out of step.
The drummer, composer and bandleader John Hollenbeck's music has some of those traits too, and in What Is the Beautiful?, his Claudia Quintet puts a handful of Patchen's poems to music. Most of the record was commissioned by the University of Rochester, whose rare-books library is currently showing an exhibition of Patchen's graphic art; the poem pieces are broken up by a couple of instrumental ones that aren't directly related to Patchen.

Fitting music to verse can be tricky territory: if you literalize a poem with musical gestures, you may be taking away its mysteries and killing it. But Mr. Hollenbeck's work generally gives listeners something concrete — an effect or an event or a process in the music — without becoming condescending or obvious. Here he has paid sensitive attention to the words and moods of the Patchen poems.

Sometimes that simply means that musicians mimic the words rhythm and melody, as happens in “Showtime” and “Do Me That Love,” or their meaning, as in “Limpidity of Silence,” which is basically a classical-music piece that indeed involves a lot of limpidity and silence. (A lot of tension too.) But sometimes it means much more. With the singer Kurt Elling reading some texts, and Theo Bleckmann singing others, Mr. Hollenbeck respects how the poems begin, modulate and end. As much as possible, he has let the poems write the music for him.

The title track, with the poem excellently read over the music by Mr. Elling, is a good example, probably the best. The first four stanzas are short and fairly similar in shape, and the strange and slowly accumulating group sound, with accordion and vibraphone, cymbals and bowed bass, repeats a figure accordingly. Later, longer stanzas contain arcs of momentum, which the music mimics with rising lines. At the end of every stanza comes the word pause, followed by and begin again, which of course likewise happens in the music.

Then drums and piano trickle in, through a series of repeated questions: “Will the shapes of evil fall? / Will the lives of men grow clean? / Will the power be for good?”

There is steady rhythm and a few levels of harmonic motion from the different instruments, some repeated and steady, some wayward. (This is an expanded version of his Claudia Quintet, with the pianist Matt Mitchell as an extra member.) And the piece as a whole has its own cumulative momentum, its music becoming denser and broader, coming to a period of wordless collective improvisation in the middle.

For seven minutes, everything logically and constantly grows, until the chilling and unresolved end. It's a piece with a lot of improvisation, one that takes a lot of cues from its literary source, but at the same time it's a marvel of composition.

There are some less good examples. Mr. Elling is a great singer who sometimes explores his sense of humor a little too much; he s the same way as a reader, rendering “Opening the Window” with what sounds like an exaggeration of Patchen's own woozy baritone (which you can hear on recordings from the late 1950s). He abandons the clarity he achieved in the title track; instead he becomes jokey and too knowing. But this comes at the end of the album, and so much good has been achieved by then that it seems forgivable.