What Is the Sound of An Artist Taking Action?
The Republican delegates had left the city and life had largely returned to normal when I paid a visit to Phil Kline. The upcoming election, however, was still very much on his mind.
“It’s like this war of rhetoric right now that the Right has such a command of,” he tells me. “They’ve got this whole John Wayne thing going which is that inarticulacy is good. Somebody who cares but does it in words of more than one syllable or actually puts sentences together is therefore suspect because they speak too well. It’s like an across the board attack on intellectuals. I hesitate to say artists but I guess that includes us.”
As with many of the composers and musicians I spoke with, as passions rose sometimes words failed. “I’m working on my inarticulate thing,” Kline says with a smile when he looses his train of thought. “Wait until you hear my new music. No melodies, no harmonies, sub- melodies, sub harmonies. It will just be blunt gestures that just slowly push the audience toward thinking something.”
“That’s the new art,” he suggested with a wink.
Molly Sheridan: Zippo Songs opens with a prologue drawn from Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon briefings. I’m curious, as you were creating it, how the juxtaposition and the intersection of Vietnam and the Rumsfeld text felt to you? Theory goes that you need a certain amount of distance on an event to comment effectively, but you were doing both at the same time.
Phil Kline: While putting together that piece, I wasn’t trying to make that connection. I was trying to just take the evidence that is the lighters and the poems on them and just treat them—well, this is an impossible word to use—but objectively; to just look at the emotion in it, the language in it, and treat it at face value. I realized as I started that I couldn’t write a piece about Vietnam, I could only write a piece about those words. In that sense, I wasn’t making or trying to make a political statement but rather an emotional or dramatic statement.
When I got to the end of the project, that’s when I kind of got tricked into making it political. It was just a practical consideration at first because the Zippo Songs are kind of short for an evening’s presentation. I realized, if nothing else, I was going to need more to make an album. I saw the Zippo Songs as kind of a journey, a spiritual progression which ends in some sort of metaphysical disappearing or death. I was looking for statements from White House people or Army people from the ’60s who could send these souls off on that journey to hell or wherever they’re going, but I couldn’t find anything interesting. I opened up the back page of the New Yorker and I saw the famous quote, “As we know there are no knowns” from Rumsfeld. He has a very interesting way of speaking. He’s sort of a speech artist in his own way and he’s the opposite of George Bush. He likes to put together these long, elastic, never-ending sentences, these wonderful ellipses of confusion. I realized, well, if I do this, I’m clearly making a connection; people are going to see it as a connection. It wasn’t that I meant to, but when I saw the possibility, I realized, well, yeah, why should I avoid making this connection—it’s probably pretty apt. It was kind of serendipity in a way.
Molly Sheridan: What about the next step after the piece is finished? I’m thinking of Zippo Songs and Vigil, the public walk through New York that you organized after Sept. 11 that had participants playing your ambient tape piece on boom boxes. How does the effect you anticipate mesh with reality?
Phil Kline: Their reactions often surprise me. With those outdoor pieces, they always expand in a way that I can’t anticipate—the sense of community and the warmth and the cooperation. It was kind of a release for all of us. I didn’t have a whole lot of time to put it together, maybe a week, but it helped keep me busy and my hands occupied. We were out there on the street that Saturday night. When we started coming down Fifth Avenue and got to the intersections, we encountered some policemen. They asked us what we were doing and then they cleared every intersection for us for the next half mile. They just rode along on their motorcycles and stopped traffic.
The length of the walk had us end up in Washington Square, and we sat with our boom boxes and ended the piece there. None of us had any idea that when you looked up you saw the space—the empty space [in the skyline] was right there. And there’s nothing you can say.
Molly Sheridan: Zippo Songs is a more structured concert work, of course. How does that performance and the reaction compare?
Phil Kline: Somehow if you get a piece where the idea has room to expand, a piece like that can take you somewhere. If you start a piece and you don’t know where you’re going, I think it can take you further than if you start a piece by knowing exactly where you’re going because then it will just go there, whereas otherwise it will go places you don’t expect. That’s the way I’m most comfortable with writing, plus it’s a lot easier to not know. [laughs]
Zippo Songs is kind of a weird idea, and it might even be a credit to the fact that the idea came pre-Bush in the late ’90s and then it was written while the Iraq War was gearing up. I thought it was going to be complex, nightmarish, like Vietnam movies, that kind of darkness and confusion. Then, when I started writing the music, it ended up being kind of light and clear, which made another kind of sense to me.
The idea communicates in a kind of subtle way, it’s sneaky and subtle. It’s not an anti-war piece in any conventional sense. I could easily imagine soldiers in the most noble war ever fought having written the same things on their lightersÉwell, maybe not quite the same things because Vietnam twisted people’s heads a little bit. But it’s just a piece about war. I don’t even think of it as an anti-war piece, it’s just that when you see a lot of messages that have to do with pain and death and loneliness, well, it’s not exactly a pro-war piece.
Molly Sheridan: The Dixie Chicks got a lot of attention after their infamous Bush slam, but saying something in our community, what kind of larger impact can you expect to have or is that not a consideration?
Phil Kline: It’s a tough question to answer. I have to say, I’ve heard some stuff and I’ve seen some stuff that has some eloquence, but I haven’t seen Bob Dylan coming up through the ranks. Nobody’s writing the next “Masters of War,” that I can tell, songs that could change your life on impact. So maybe this is 1958, maybe we’re more the gentle folk singers who are beginning to raise our guitars and maybe the really mean, angry truth-teller is a few years down the way. I don’t know if it has any impact right now, at least I question that it does. Maybe it will have impact at another time, like the music of Kurt Weill has a lot of impact on me and the words of Bertolt Brecht, and that’s already 80 years old. Also, we’re not just delivering a message, we’re also doing what we do—what I’m doing is for me, too, and my own sanity.
Once again you’ve brought me down to total inarticulacy trying to figure out what all this means. I feel like I’m not angry enough. I should be really raising that hammer. Hey, maybe one of us will real soon. I have a feeling that as far as the pain and the anger and the alarm in the music, we probably haven’t heard anything yet, because I think a lot of us are just beginning to wake up. Who knows? A lot of people’s eyes and ears are wide open right now and they should be wide open, so we’re going to hear stuff and we’re going to hear other people shouting to say, “Wake up!”