A Duet In Progress... The Spontaneous Art of David Budbill and William Parker

Words and music get together and party downall the time, but maybe not in the same way that Vermont writer David Budbill and New York musician Willam Parker imagined. Matt Bushlow gets the story.

On a brisk and graying fall evening, my partner and I slipped through the stage door of Burlington, Vermont’s Flynn Theatre for a performance of David Budbill and William Parker’s Zen Mountains/Zen Streets: A Duet for Poet and Improvised Bass. Budbill, a Vermont poet/playwright and Parker, an avant-garde jazz bassist and composer from New York, have created a piece of theater combining poems from Budbill’s forthcoming book, Moment to Moment: The Autobiography of a Mountain Recluse, with accompanying music composed and improvised by Parker.

Upon entering the Flynn, we were greeted with a wide smile by Arnie Molina, the theatre’s Program Director. He graciously directed us toward the stage, and as we followed his lead up a ramp and around a corner, we saw the length of the Flynn’s main stage, lined on either side by tall velvet curtains, forming a long, narrow room that had been created for their series of “On Stage” performances. We found two seats about fifteen feet from the tiny stage, which supported a couple of microphone and music stands, an array of bells, cymbals and small gongs, and the prone figure of Parker’s acoustic bass.

After a while, the lights dimmed and from behind us the tall, thin room was filled with percussive pings and crashes and the quick, staccato notes of a flute-like instrument. The audience looked around and toward the back of the room as the sound moved closer, to the left and right, until I saw one man wearing a black coat, a hat and glasses to my left, clanging a small gong, and another, on my right, shuffling his feet erratically with the rhythm of his own flute-playing. They both made their way to the stage, and their frantic introduction almost ended with a final loud strike on the gong, but Parker, with the flute, went on, as he had caught on to a melodic idea he seemed to like. Unaccompanied, he played for a few moments, toying with the idea, and then as abruptly as all the sounds began, they ended.

The Flynn showcased two performances of Zen Mountains-Zen Streets on Sunday, October 18th, and what unfolded in front of us was unlike anything I had ever seen before. I’ve seen and heard many poetry readings, and I’ve been to jazz performances at the Flynn and elsewhere, but this was a type of storytelling that was not accompanied by a musician, but told in two voices; one voice just happened to take the shape of a bass, a trumpet, a trombone, or a series of percussive instruments at different points during the show. “This is genuine duet,” Budbill emphasized during an interview the following day at the Sai-Gon Cafe, in downtown Burlington. “There’s this tradition in poetry, of reading poetry, and poetry and jazz, and in most of those it’s the musicians backing up the poet, and we’re definitely trying not to do that. These are two instruments playing duet, and I think that is really important to both of us...”

Some of the inspiration for this duet comes from what Taoists call Wu-wei: spontaneous action in accordance with one’s nature. David feels that his poems come to him, “out of a lifetime of listening and watching... (but) they begin with a sudden and in-the-moment apprehension of a feeling, image, thought... The poems... reflect my own basic nature.” David sees the spontaneous moment of Wu-wei as a link between his poems and William’s music, as “(William)... also creates his music as a spontaneous action in accordance with his own nature.” Out of this idea of Wu-wei comes the core of Zen Mountains/Zen Streets, and the reason that this is a true duet; the two artists improvise off of one another. They are reliant upon each other for energy, and for the next moment of inspiration, which could very well steer the performance in a new direction, relying upon how each performer is feeling or interpreting what is happening at any given moment.

In Zen Mountains/Zen Streets, David Budbill and William Parker tell stories of everyday life, and they make the audience feel at home. Budbill’s character is Judevine Mountain, a reclusive poet living in the mountains of Vermont, whose poems tell the tale of a man who relishes the serenity of his simple mountain life: he loads his wood stove full, brews a hot cup of tea, reads ancient Chinese poets and writes his own “ridiculous poems”. He lives outside of the world of mainstream America, and for the most part, he is content with his place in the world. Parker is Iron Fingers, Judevine’s friend from the city, who expresses his own story of a free jazz musician’s city life and his hope for humanity, through music and chants. This is not highbrow, intellectual theatre, but the ever-constant and ever-changing flow of human life. “I... think there’s a line in the program,” David tells me, “When I am quoting Iron Fingers as saying, ‘What ever you do, you’re trying to move people to feel something’... You see, people have been asking on the tour, ‘how did you two get together? Here’s this black guy from the city, and this white guy from Vermont, how come you work so well together?’ The answer is, it doesn’t have anything to do with race or place. It has to do with attitude toward the function of art, and what we want to do.”

Surrounded by instruments on the small stage at the Flynn, William Parker began the evening with a deep, rich improvisation on bowed bass. Budbill, waiting for Parker to finish his opening idea, delivered his first poem: “On the Road to Buddhahood / Ever plainer. Ever simpler. / Ever more ordinary. / My goal is to become a simpleton. / And from what everybody tells me / I am making real good progress.” The audience laughed, and from then on, the bond was made and the format of the performance was established; at the end of each series of poems, Parker would take a solo, after which he would play a piece that would function as the introduction and accompaniment for the next poem.

As the evening progressed, more and of the personality and depth of the characters was revealed to the audience. Judevine’s poem The Progress of Ambition explained his movement into the mountains of Vermont from New York City as a young man, “When I was twenty-five I wandered the streets of New York mumbling to myself: A quarter of a century, and what have I done! / Then I quit the world, and withdrew into these mountains so I could lose my self and see the world with clear and simple eyes, or so I told myself.” The poem went on to express Judevine’s aging, self conscious belief that he had not “accomplished” anything, “Now I’m almost 60 and, even though I practice every day, it is still almost impossible to stand at the kitchen window with my cup of tea and an empty mind and watch the sun rise over the fir trees to the east. / More than half a century and what have I done!” With Judevine’s poems, Budbill went on to express the ways of a man who lives as a recluse, but whose life of simplicity is not always idyllic: Judevine has the common troubles that we all have; worries about money, a fear of dying, and an occasional longing for old friends. But Judevine Mountain remains happy. He finds friends in the animals near and around his home, and in a woman, mentioned in one poem. He reads, writes, and finds purpose and joy in tending his garden and watching the relationships of the things that make up the world.

When asked how much of Judevine was a part of him, Budbill said, “Well, when I an running around like a chicken with my head cut off making hotel reservations and writing grants (for Zen Mountains/Zen Streets)... I don’t feel much like a mountain recluse, so there is a lot if Judevine’s life which is not mine, but on the other hand when I get done here I am going home (to) try to get glad. Notice the word try.”

As Budbill told us, under the stage lights, of Judevine’s many days spent, “wandering through the woods to see wildflowers/ and listen to birds and the wind singing through the trees,” William Parker was right alongside, as Iron Fingers, Judevine’s friend. His eyes closed, his fingers moving all over the neck of his bass, he both complimented Budbill’s reading and developed ideas in counterpoint with him. “The music inspires the way I read the poem,” David told me. “If you heard me read these poems a cappela, they’d be so different. It’s easier to invest a line with greater emotion when there’s music there than there is when there isn’t. I don’t know why. It changes the cadences, the rhythms and the cadences of the lines and the stanzas of the poems are determined by the music.” When I asked William how he has developed the music to work with the poems, he said, “I basically play the themes, or whatever written music I have differently each night, and sometimes it gets expanded on a little bit more, a little bit less, sometimes on certain sections I’m not playing the written music, I’ve just discarded it... and I improvise on certain things.”

Improvisation was at the heart of this performance, and especially when an audience member is lucky enough to be sitting right up close to the stage, watching and listening to an improvising musician often offers a glimpse of the very inside of an artist, and their creative process; the ideas are coming out as fresh as can be, and whether these ideas belong to a person’s repertoire, or they are coming out in a spontaneous flow, we get to see them firsthand. Each one of William Parker’s solos was completely melodic and free. Without any harmony instruments playing with him, he was able to create any sounds he wanted to, from the widest variety of percussive sounds I’ve ever heard come from a bass, to a trombone solo that was so “out” that it sat on the borderline of painful to listen to. But in the context of the performance, and the theme of two artists living outside of the mainstream, every note of Parker’s trombone playing was true. It all made sense. William told me, “In what we do (in avant-garde jazz) you hear all kinds of things - you might hear something from Japan, something from China, something from Saturn, something from Mars, something from Mississippi, something from the Bronx - you hear all different kinds of music and that’s the thing about this music, is that when it’s working you can play anything and I mean anything ... and it will work... I’ve done it. There are very few forms of music where you can play anything and you can make it work... I love it.” William’s style of playing clearly illustrates his place outside of the mainstream, and alongside the story of Judevine Mountain’s writings and life as a mountain recluse, Zen Mountains/Zen Streets portrays, as David Budbill says, how both characters “work toward a graceful, celebratory acceptance of their roles in a difficult world.”

Trying to keep positivity alive in a difficult world was a theme throughout the performance, and it was embodied eloquently in a chant that appeared around the middle of the show, then during its last moments. “That chant begins in a section of complaint poems, poems complaining about not only money but about this and that,” David explained. As David was reading the poems, William was slowly building up behind him with one constant musical idea, repeating it over and over, and as the poems got more intense the music rose to meet them until the audience could clearly hear the chant that William was pairing with the poems and the melody on his bass. “‘Of all, of all, of all, of all, the things in this world, which brings you the most joy?’...It’s a counterpoint,” David said. “Here is the poet complaining, complaining, complaining, and then there is this chant... going on... So when it comes back in the end you’ve been through various changes and moods... it should have a different and deeper meaning by the time you get to the end.”

By the end of Zen Mountains/Zen Streets , the audience had seen Judevine Mountain and Iron Fingers alternate between confessions of worry and those of inner peace. Iron Fingers’ question, “Of all the things in this world, what brings you the most joy?” brought a resolution to the ups and downs of the two characters stories, and reminded the audience to ask themselves the same question. “Beauty is your survival,” William insists. “I think that is what art is about; art is supposed to train us or inspire us to see beauty and then when you see beautiful things you soak it up and it’s supposed to uplift you as a human being to another level... so that now you see beauty and begin doing beautiful things. Thus, the world changes, and that is the theory behind it...”

From watching David Budbill and William Parker perform, and talking to them about their collaboration, it is clear that creating art is what brings them the most joy. Their performance at the Flynn theatre was uniquely creative, bringing together two soloists under a tradition born in the 50’s and recreated in a whole new way. Though at times the music may not have been as accessible as the poetry, the interplay between these two men proved them to be gifted partners and the experience of this musical collaboration was an impressively intimate one. If these two visionaries find enough interest, funding and possible venues to keep Zen Mountains/Zen Streets alive, I would recommend the experience to anyone interested in poetry, jazz or simply creative art. There is also a possibility of a CD release of one of the live performances, capturing David Budbill and William Parker live, in the moment. If you have the chance - check it out.