An air of mystery surrounds the work of Emily Dickinson. The beloved writer spent most of her time away from the public’s eye amassing a collection of poetry that has fascinated readers for decades.
Her short, gnomic verses are a perfect fit for vocalist Jay Clayton and composer Kirk Nurock. On their new recording, Unraveling Emily, Nurock weaves Clayton’s innovative vocalizing into surreal compositional soundscapes.
Nurock overdubbed multiple layers of Clayton’s singing and speaking, with varying ambience, echo and spatial relationships. A haunted theatrical quality appears, as if Dickinson’s ghost is trying to tell a story, without beginning or end.
A handful of poems were set as heart-rending ballads. The quiet “All This and More” has an uplifting feel, while “Will There Really Be a Morning?” is devastating in its blunt emotionality. Clayton’s mastery is in full voice on “A Something In a Summer’s Day” and the duo really make Dickinson’s words swing on “I May Remember Him.”
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Jay Clayton has garnered attention as a genre-defying vocalist, specializing in improvisatory contexts where she has created her own vocabulary of extended techniques. She has influenced an entire generation of younger, open-minded vocalists. Clayton’s work can be heard on numerous eclectic recordings of her own and alongside legends like Sheila Jordan and Steve Reich.
Kirk Nurock is a composer and performer of wide scope. He has orchestrated for Leonard Bernstein and Dizzy Gillespie and has composed music for big band, choir, and theater. Also a jazz pianist and composition professor, his work is fantastically diverse and captivating.
The two met in the 1970s in New York City. Nurock’s Natural Sound Workshop provided willing participants, regardless of training, an opportunity for vocal expression through an unusual, neo-primitive vocabulary. The group performed throughout New York and on WBAI broadcasts, where Clayton first heard them.
Clayton reached out to Nurock and suggested they meet. Neither knew much about the other’s work and were happy to discover their mutual lineage in jazz and improvisation. Their collaborations have flourished ever since.
On Unraveling Emily, Dickinson’s reveries on nature, death, love and spirituality, provide the framework. Clayton chose poems and couplets she liked, the more succinct the better. The duo recorded at Juilliard’s recording studio, and later at the pianist’s home.
It isn’t well known, but Dickinson owned a piano and improvised. The idea of recording on her piano – still on display in Amherst, MA - intrigued Nurock. But Dickinson’s piano was not available, and another “detuned” piano was found. Its otherworldly sounds on “Hope,” “Emily’s Piano” and the radical “Wild Nights” seem to summon antiquity.
While Unraveling Emily, two musicians long at the forefront of adventurous vocal music, unite with the timeless poetry of Emily Dickinson in a unique and moving combination of craft and drama.
released November 3, 2017
Kirk Nurock - compositions, montages and piano
Jay Clayton - vocal interpretations and improvisations