“The sweeping sonic landscapes and specific sound design presented in Firebird instantly draw me into each story, listening deeper and feeling each word.”— Maria Finkelmeier, percussionist, composer, and Associate Professor at Berklee College of Music“What to call it? Poetry? Song? Metamorphosis? Exorcism? Blessing? Gratefully, the collaborative world of “Firebird” unequivocally offers something beyond the limits of language, a psalm whose burning originates before and beyond us.”--Laura Dolp, PH.D. (Associate Professor of Musicology, John J. Cali School of Music, Monsclair State University)
“It is very difficult to do this kind of thing well, very few people pull it off, with Laurie Anderson being a stellar exception, and I think Firebird does in fact also do it well ... I find it spacious, delicate, not at all pretentious or over-wrought - which I think is a risk for a composer interpreting [poetry] like this. There is a strange sense of liberation or perhaps restitution in that, which I imagine is meant to be an expression of the Phoenix’s rebirth from the ashes.”
--- Michael Boyce, PhD, Writer / Editor
“Kythe Heller has written the poetry of a burning girl. If you are or have been one, well, you know who you are. Firebird is a searing, exhilarating book. It establishes grief and radiance in their correct proportions; it has life-giving power.”---Ariana Reines, poet and author of The Sand Book, longlisted for the National Book Award in Poetry“The runaway, the fire girl, the feral girl: she’s been broken by life but persists stubbornly in an openness to the world--to love--that borders on the mad. From the ashes, she plucks what remains to build a cairn of oracle bones and shimmering words. Kythe Heller knows how close pain is to mystic grace.”---Jackie Wang, poet and author of The Sunflower Casts a Spell to Save Us from the Void, shortlisted for the National Book Award in Poetry
Announcing the Release of A FULL-LENGTH musicAL Album born from a book of poetry TITLED FIREBIRD.
“The album corresponds to a secret intimacy of the ear—a phoenix space where meaning, sound, and word merge and touch one another, and by touching, put into play the whole system of the senses. Here, fire is both a destructive and a transformative force, a set of relations between the burning forests and a life that is on fire, altering people and ecologies. A burning girl, a forest, a homeless shelter, and a smoldering mattress—these images invoke a sonic world that sears into the listener’s imagination. The female body becomes a site of trauma and myth, a place where ‘everything is burning,’ has been and is always burning and being born.”— Kythe Heller, Firebird writer
Spoken verse, vocalizations, cello, pitched and unpitched percussion, hammer dulcimer, bells, found objects (including boiling water, gardening gloves, fire, and snow), and field recordings can all be found in Firebird. This work, a realization of Heller’s Massachusetts Book Award-nominated poetry collection, published by Arrowsmith Press, is a full-length album of spoken voice and experimental music unlike any other.
The Firebird is a mythic creature who rises from ashes and in the spirit of the Firebird, Kythe Heller and Sounds Like Things decided to donate 50% of the proceeds from this album to organizations dedicated to fire disaster relief. Firebird was created in the face of multiple climate crises, including a record-breaking wildfire season in British Columbia, the current homeland of Sounds Like Things.
REVIEW ESSAY PUBLISHED 2/15/22 IN FORECAST JOURNAL
MIND IN THE FLAMES : REFLECTIONS ON FIREBIRD
A musical collaboration between poet Kythe Heller and experimental duo Sounds Like Things (Andrew Stauffer and Nicholas Denton Protsack) exploring sonic ecologies of fire.
BY LAURA DOLP PH.D. (ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF MUSICOLOGY, JOHN J. CALI SCHOOL OF MUSIC, MONTCLAIR STATE UNIVERSITY)
“WHAT TO CALL IT? POETRY? SONG? METAMORPHOSIS? EXORCISM? BLESSING? GRATEFULLY, THE COLLABORATIVE WORLD OF “FIREBIRD” UNEQUIVOCALLY OFFERS SOMETHING BEYOND THE LIMITS OF LANGUAGE, A PSALM WHOSE BURNING ORIGINATES BEFORE AND BEYOND US.”
I read Firebird (the poetry collection) several times before I had a chance to listen to Firebird (the album), and over the last month while traveling, some of my experiences have also become unexpected reference points for this work. When I had my feet on the ground again, I returned to the experimental sound map I originally made of the album and began to write more freely about the piece as a whole. There were some issues that I wanted to address: storytelling, the potential of acoustic spaces, and the ways that Laurie Anderson’s wide-ranging thoughts fed my listening.
For example, I’ve been watching Laurie Anderson’s 2021 Norton Lectures, “Spending the War Without You,” which were running in parallel in my mind while listening, as so many themes resonated. (I highly recommend Lecture #3 about Rocks):
- The body as a library of pain
- The body as a living book, if only we had the nerve to read it
- “consider the source”
- Making a jewel tree, gathering people
- Eternal fadeouts
- Virus as language, language as virus
- Language as mimicry, deception
- Language as loss, memorial
- Language as confirmation
- Why construct a world? What is it for?
- “I’m talking to the part of you that never speaks”
- The music of dreamtime
- Music about falling angels
- Letters that have no sound
- The play of predictive text, its tendency to split voices
- Blank areas of the page and white fire
I am interested in treatments of acoustic space and silence in Firebird, especially when it functions like a blank page. Since one of its underlying themes is purification, I appreciated the moments of silence overall as references to something already pure, as if to signify the increasingly fewer places in the external world where silence still exists. I don’t mean purity as in a rejection of the general dirtiness of living, but rather because I had just listened to an interview with Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist who speaks about qualities of silence and particularly the notion of “natural” silence, where he defines silence as presence, not absence. Where silence is the natural acoustic system manifest. In this context, silence leads to an understanding of place and how it demands certain things of us, like vulnerability, and an interest in an ancient past. As I listened I kept thinking about the spatial implications of the Firebird project, and ways that it could be further dimensional. There were moments where I was aware of the movement of foreground to background and vice versa, and I felt excited by those. There were also transferences of meaning because sounds marked by one concept moved to others, for example:
When a sound morphs and bridges two kinds of imagery:
- “Burning Girl” [line47, 4:19] “flipping the pages”… when sand becomes a page turning
- “The Spirit Neither Sorts Nor Separates” [line11, :45] “skeletons” … when typing becomes bones or when sounds are stretched or blow open or compressed:
- “Burning Girl” [line65, 5:57- ] “everything outside” hollow horn … after this point, when the sound I’m calling the ‘growl’ is stretched to the point of being atomized.
- “The Spirit Neither Sorts Nor Separates” – I love the beginning of this, so unapologetic.
- “Runaway” [7:33- ] “edge of a blade” when the blade sharpening stretches, flattens, and morphs or when they loop and become symphonic: [2:53-3:15] “behind the girl was the fire…”
There was only one moment that took me by surprise, which I was unsure about from a technical standpoint: in “That Heart – Let Me Begin Again” at the very beginning, where the voice is mixed more forward(?) It was jarring.
The sound map helped me understand how and when sounds become important for the narrative. For me, it does a good job of complicating the natural and the human world because the girl belongs to both. I thought of George Crumb and Black Angels, especially his gorgeous music of bones and flutes and god-music with crystal glasses.
STORYTELLING [reflections on individual tracks in the album]:
Burning Girl: The soundtrack as a whole feels like an act of encoding dreams. In these dreams, there are characters like the girl, fire, and Death. There are spoken-nouns that act like verbs: fire, door, death, thumb [line74]. And there are literal sounds that imply consequential, unspoken nouns: scratch [1:40], sharpening [2:58, 7:50], flutter [4:04]. Fire belongs to every category.
Mattress Under the Overpass: To this point, it seems that fire will prevail but this section begins with water-liquid, and more significantly ends with liquid over fire. “Snow” from the previous section accrues a new meaning here: liquified. I felt compelled on the second or third listen by how the soundtrack worked across the text, which speaks so much about fire, yet is supported by water. Questions like: “How will she hold herself if she cannot hold this?” remind me of the story of Hildegard von Bingen’s experience of washing her teacher (Jutta)’s body upon her death, and finding that the chain (cilice) that she had worn on her flesh as penitence had made three furrows around her body. For me, in this section the mattress shares something with a body undergoing mortification of the flesh but also the protagonist’s reluctance to wholly subscribe to it. It makes me wonder about the role of penance here.
The Spirit Neither Sorts Nor Separates: This section made me doubly aware of the uneasy co-existence of inorganic and organic forms: x-rays and breath. The Firebird is precisely described for the first time, both its physicality and its purpose [lines 32-38]. At the exit of the lover, a door opens [3:35] and I circled around in my memory to the beginning of “Burning Girl”.
Runaway: I had the image of beads on a mala: each story followed by sound intervals. Its global rhythm is rigid – relentless and iron – even though the words move quickly from one place and time to another. The intervallic structure of “Runaway” is relentless in the same way that funeral bells toll and the bells recall John Donne, and thus something about the inevitable reach of fire (its dreaded inclusivity) and also then, in the larger terms of Firebird, physical metamorphosis. After the story about the blood test, I realized that the beads are each individually, in their own way, pulling against the restricting thread of the mala. They want to escape, to flee. I am held in the grip of the chest-jarring lowest pitch of the piano, it ricochets, super-resonant and ominous.
That Heart – Time Does Not Exist: This audio section is so brief that I had to circle back several times. It was over before it began. Ironically in the context of “Firebird,” I was doubly aware of time in this section because I felt disoriented. When I read Firebird, I didn’t feel this dislocation because one page followed another. That said, on the third or fourth listen, I came to appreciate its sense of landing, of open space and crystalline shapes. When I think of the Pietà, I think of translucency more than anything, and the weight of his body. I appreciated that it made me think differently about Mary’s sacrifice – that in the context of this poem the girl, the grieving witness, could also be implicated in his death or also that (in him) she witnesses her own. The latter is more Catholic, but the former is crazy badass and I’m not sure what to do with it.
That Heart – Let Me Begin Again: This is GORGEOUS, and only makes sense after what precedes it. Let ____ Let ____ Let ____. Benediction, without letting us off the hook. But it is benediction through sight, the desire for sight and understanding. There is no benevolent outer force.
That Heart – A Flor de Piel: I go automatically to the sculptor Doris Salcedo, because of the implicit reference here to her work. I think of flowers and skin, and suturing. I place my mind in the central channel where suturing isn’t about tying but rather about clearing the way for things to pass.
What works? What doesn’t? I loved the occasions when the sounds latched themselves onto a semantic meaning or pushed themselves into another one, thereby joining the two. I wanted more of that. I was willing to accept the leitmotif approach, as long as it also involved this morphing. I didn’t want breaks between soundtracks. I wanted it to respect its order without having to manhandle iTunes so it didn’t shuffle the tracks against my will. It’s a silly, and possibly petty, complaint, I know. But nonetheless it affected my experience of the piece. Then again, is it imperative that it follows in order? I imagine it is but maybe I’m wrong.
There are so many things that work successfully, like the perspective switches of the poetry—like: “Let me be no one again” [from “Let Me Begin Again” line5]. For me, every word folds back and reverses.“Let” – an appeal (at least potentially) the syntax and the request, is borrowed from eons before and one that implies the gifts of the external world. In its context however, a reach inside. “Me”—the most conventional of words in this sentence and thus the trickiest because at this point I understand that it isn’t a noun, but a verb, and largely formless be—perhaps because I’ve been overdosing on Laurie Anderson and she reminded me about blank pages and white fire (loving kindness of the Torah), and letters that have no sound (the letter that looks like alif but isn’t). I see this “be” in your sentence as a silent letter. “No one”—an obvious negation (in conventional terms) of the previous “me”. But the first time I read “no(t) one”, a kind of interesting misreading of this word combination also reminds me of when eyes are half-lidded in meditation stay alert but just enough to put the visual world in proper proportion. In any case, in its negation, I perceived multiplicity again. Like so much of “Firebird,” Cartesian time is undermined and largely irrelevant, dreamlike. There is also aspiration in this word, thus the blessing of Let Me Begin Again.
I’d be interested to see what happens when the words are invited to give way to sound. In other words, at no point did I feel a challenge to the foregrounding (aka priority) of words to the rest of the sound world. The ambient world was careful around them, only on rare occasions did it compete. At first I accepted this as a form of respect, but it could also be interpreted as a form of submission. What would happen if concurrent spaces were added? How many more layers of sound texture could be added without crossing the line to interference? Would interference be productive?
I would love to know what happens when you explore more fully the voice of the poetry from a sound perspective. I still have the impression that the vocalist [Kythe] is thinking separately about 1) reading poems 2) singing 3) other sounds. What would happen if you collectively blurred those lines? I imagine that the separateness in the case of “Firebird” has to do with division of labor, and that it is, after all, a collaboration with different skill sets. You brought different material to the project. But as someone who is simply listening to the finished project, I was thinking: wouldn’t it be interesting to hear the voice morph into a marker of something recognizably human and also belonging to the world of birds? There are so many ways you could go with this – Diamanda Galás, to scat. For a refresher on the former, check out her “O Death.”
I feel like “Firebird” partly answered its own question of what to do now in “Runaway” [13:50-] “It’s not enough to know what she knows. I want—what she is a metaphor for. What she is— beyond metaphor.” In combination with the last line from “A Flor de Piel” – “In that heart, what point is there in dying or being born again?” I guess the scary part is that investigating that “heart” might mean you end up dispensing with some of your assumptions about what art is for. I’m about to dive into that film “Into Great Silence:” Philip Gröning’s 2005 documentary film about the Carthusian monks as a means to introduce Hildegard’s sound world because it’s so fiendishly hard to recreate it, or at least create a meaningful starting point.
I hope some of this is useful. I thank you again. Your piece provided ballast in the early mornings over the last month when I needed something deeper and closer to the bone.
A SOUND MAP OF FIREBIRD
[Editor’s note: The following is a compilation of thoughts and impressions by Laura Dolp while listening to the album. Some of these sonic interpretations correspond to the actual sounds that were recorded, while others do not. Ultimately, they highlight the subjectivity of a listener, the role of active imagination in the listener’s encounter with the album and the impressions it may leave.]
When I first approached “Firebird,” I panicked because I realized how limited my vocabulary is for sound (I know, the irony of being a musicologist). It took me several weeks to calm down and come up with a strategy. Eventually I decided to make a map. On the way across the country, at 35,000 feet, I created a kind of annotated score: listening line by line to the relationship between sound and text, marking their entrance in time, and then creating nomenclature. It isn’t a prescriptive list—in the sense that I expect to be wrong about some of the sounds (their actual sources) or exactly when they occur—but rather I tried to honor my perceptual encounters with word and sound. It undoubtedly includes moments of free association. Sometimes when I was unsure about whether I was remembering correctly, or it was difficult to find the words to describe the sound, I went back and listened to a line several times. The associations are both concrete and metaphoric, whichever came first to my mind.
words in a silent room
The Burning Girl
fire, close to the bridge
“opening” sine wave [line5, 1:28]
“place marked out” scratch [line7, 1:40]
“couldn’t survive” sine harmonic/whistle [line9, 1:45]
“locked herself” key rattle [line13, 1:58]
“voice…singing” metal/chime [line19, 2:24]
“snow falling” pitched metal/chime [line19, 2:41]
“blood against snow” knife sharpening [line25, 2:58] “burned a hole” rustling [line27, 3:05]
“set her on…earth” drum taps
“in a previous life” drum + pizz rhymed/patterns [line31, 3:25] “through the sky” rainmaker [line42, 4:00]
“speak, said Death” sand shaker/insect wings [line43, 4:04] insect wings flutter, captive but not struggling
“flipping the pages” sand shaker/insect wings [line47, 4:19] “flames…” low build growl [line57, 5:09]
“setting” cymbal [line60, 5:27]
“on fire” fire [line61, 5:32]
“begin to see” lurch/low appoggiatura [line64, 5:54] “everything outside” hollow horn [line65, 5:57]
“up to the flame” creaking door [line72, 6:29]
inner singing [7:26]
whistling overtone [7:40]
“There was wind” sand across a surface [line82, 7:30] “ragged bandage” knife sharpening [line87, 7:50] pulse/flute open [8:40]
Mattress Under the Overpass
water bowl/reverb/arpeggiated upward stroke
“douse it” water [line1, :24]
“Light the match” match striking [line1, :28]
“exhausting/wheel” maracas [line7-8, 1:00]
“look inside” creaking [line10, 1:06]
footsteps in the snow, syn starfish [1:19]
“there…the wound” drum [line27, 2:18]
“skin of eyelids” drumsticks on the rim [line30, 2:30] “Last night I felt” fire to the front, over water bowl [line38, 3:26] “reached in” creaking, strain opens [line45, 4:04] “single pour” water over fire [line47, 4:15]
water over all, unwinding
The Spirit Neither Sorts Nor Separates
“You know” dead shallow drumbeat, irregular heartbeat [line1, :10] “tangled” cluster [line2, :15]
sing bowl strokes
“separated” slaps [line4, :24]
“type” wood block tap [line9, :40]
“skeletons” from typing to bones [line11, :45]
“We stroked” to “There are things” words no sounds [lines12-15]
“death touches” scraping [line16, 1:10]
“girl / kneeling” rolling harmonics [line17-18, 1:15]
open space, slow heavy breath of sleep
“tarot” syn low radar [line25, 2:01]
“two cups” bell steps up [line28, 2:06]
“The existence…” >silence
“I feel…trashing” thrashing wings, literal [line41, 3:05]
“I do not know” cluster high harmonic [line45, 3:22]
bell punctuation [3:31]
“When he left” latch opens, clothes throw, the woosh of movement in the distance [line47-48, 3:35] the addition of the soundtrack made me doubly aware of doors in the book, when they appear
“your fingers blessing” pages turning, scratch of pen [line52, 3:56]
“shivering” high cicadas [line58-, 4:20]
“making” slow knock [line61-, 4:27]
cirrus layers continue
“See inside…” words no sound [line71, 5:04]
“light” bell [line72, 5:05]
cirrus layers continue
“cartload of x-ray” slapping [line76, 5:27]
“contains the language” fog horn> [line77, 5:38]
high bird calls
church bells, that continue
“burning inside” return of growl cluster [line3, :46]
interval1 = church bells/growl cluster<>/cymbal [1:15-1:39]
“Liquid gases … oracle bones” [lines9-18]
interval2 = to the cacophony, add higher xylophone [2:30-2:45]
“Behind … was the fire…” sounds begin to loop [lines19-21]
interval3 = [2:53-3:15] symphonic
“blackened needles” sound layers pull forward and back, keyboard forward [3:15] interval4 = keyboard up riff forward, add footsteps snow [3:45-4:05] “the fire was thick” add cluster [4:12]
interval5 = [4:33-4:42]
“her heart” <><>cymbal oscillation [5:03..]
interval6 = thins out to high harmonic [5:10-5:25]
“scars on a face” lowest pitch of the piano, ricochet [5:30]
interval7 = [5:35-5:36]
“How the skin…where the color was”
“Street signs…then ablaze” recedes momentarily [7ish]
interval9 = [7:05-7:22]
“edge of a blade” blade sharpening [7:33] the blade flattens and extends
interval10 = the bell riff faster, bell incantation, blade [8:40-9:12]
new lower upturned riff stepwise, new high downward piano [9:14-]
interval11 = [9:43-10:05]
“In the newspaper…carries it?” [lines80-93]
interval12 = [11:07-11:30]
“The girl. …my previous life” [lines94-112]
interval13 = [13:10-13:26]
“A feral girl…beyond metaphor” [lines113-117]
interval14 = [13:53-14:10]
“How a runaway girl…Castigates” [lines118-131]
interval15 = [15:22-15:33]
“It does not work…forced open to an O” [lines132-137]
interval16 = [15:58-16:03]
“What is the procedures…Devour” [lines138-147]
interval17 = [16:55-17:05]
“She was calling…leftover bones” [lines148-157]
interval18 = >[17:43-18:17]
That Heart - Time Does Not Exist
<string/harmonics pulsing, layered
“her to stone” xylophone tap [:31]
“too huge yet” cymbal cluster [:55]
That Heart - Let Me Begin Again
“Let me begin again”
“all I have known” high bell chimes, water [:15-]
“hold the dress up”
That Heart - A Flor de Piel
motives have emerged now
“Inside me” dulcimer more saturated [line16, 1:02]
“Blackened needles” clarinet effect, then into its harmonics [line16, 1:06] “forgets” drum enters [line17, 1:08]
interval1 = [1:32-2:30]
string glass, pizz [1:32-]
lower string melody, reluctant winding [1:54-2:28]
“The mark” cymbal [line24, 2:33]
“Her body sutures” lower string melody [line26, 2:34-]
“(Something sobbed” >only lower string remains. Velvet. [line32, 3:02]
“The small flame …petals” words no sounds [line33, 3:04-3:18]
“flowing” high harmonics [line37, 3:18]
“She was…” words no sounds [line39, 3:27-]
“Only the spirit” high harmonic [line42, 3:40-]
“blackened” xyloph [line50, 4:07]
interval2 = [4:21-6:20]
strings forward, moves to sigh [5:22-] this is the first location of solidity
layers of harmonics, ebbing, then turning up and stretching
reduced back to empty [6:17]
then strings again
birds in the distance [6:29]
wings beating [6:45]
“…joy?” cello fragments, tubular bells [line57, 6:58-]
“[ … ]”
interval3 = [line78, 8:07-8:31]
“[ … ]” cello answers itself with the second gesture [line81, 8:40] “for moment” cello answers again [line81, 8:41]
“In that heart” words no sounds [line83]
Her work re-imagines art-making as a practice of consciousness: In what ways can our works become sites of evolution, realizations of new social, technological, and ecological relationships, by considering how to use language and media to radically change our ways of being in the world?
Kythe Heller is an award-winning poet, multidisciplinary artist, and scholar whose work spans text, film, performance, and multimedia social practice.
Firebird (Arrowsmith), a hybrid
Recently nominated for a 2020 Massachusetts Book Award for her poetry collection Firebird, her work was described by poet Fanny Howe as containing “…a real human who experiences the fire of the divine that hurts and saves. Maybe only once in a lifetime and only spoken in poetry like this.” She is the author of the poetry collection
book of text, photographs, and ritual performance, Rite of Spring (with Meghan McNealy& partially published by BBPGallerie), two chapbooks, Immolation (Monkhoney) and Thunder Perfect Mind (Wick: Harvard Divinity School), and critical studies in philosophy of religion, Islamic mysticism, and poetics published by Cambridge UP and Akron Series in Contemporary Poetics.
Currently she is completing a doctorate at Harvard University in Comparative Religion and Art, Film, and Visual Studies / Critical Media Practice. She founded the global arts and research collective VISION LAB in 2017.
She has received fellowships and grant awards from The MacDowell Colony, Virginia Center for the Arts, Vermont Studio Center, The Mellon Foundation, Harvard University, and Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Film, performance, and installation work has been screened and exhibited in the US and Canada.
Andrew Stauffer is a percussionist, composer, and sound artist from Texas whose work explores the communication of ideas between artistic disciplines, the sonic possibilities of sundry objects, improvisation, and community. He has performed and recorded percussion in jazz, avant-garde, folk, and pop bands, as well as orchestras and a devotional Buddhist group. More recently, Andrew arranged the musical component of an audio/visual installation, The Collective Body, which features the music and dance movement of over thirty artists across North America. Andrew works as the Community and Educational Programming Specialist at the Rotary Centre for the Arts. He is on the board of directors for Chamber Music Kelowna and on the advisory board for the Living Things Festival. Andrew holds an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, where his research focused on the intersection between music and spirituality, and an M.A. in philosophy from Ohio University where his research explored ethics and aesthetics.
Nicholas Denton Protsackis an emerging composer and concert cellist, originally from Kelowna, British Columbia. His creative work often explores new connections between music and the natural world. Described as a “(composer) to keep a close eye on” by the Canadian Music Centre BC, Nicholas was recently named a recipient of two first prizes from the 2021 SOCAN Foundation Young Composers Awards, as well as a top prize from the internationally renowned BMI Student Composer Awards (2021). As a cellist, Nicholas is an active freelance performer and advocate of new music—frequently involved in collaborative projects across North America that range from more traditional idioms, to free-form improvisations. Although primarily a chamber musician, he has also appeared as a soloist with the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra and the San Francisco Conservatory Orchestra. Nicholas is currently undertaking a PhD in music at Victoria University of Wellington, studying with composers Michael Norris and Dugal McKinnon. His other major teachers have included David Garner (composition), Jean-Michel Fonteneau (cello), and Jennifer Culp (cello).