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Synaesthetic Fantasia: David Breskin and Nels Cline on DIRTY BABY

By Doug Benidt & Paul Schmelzer

“A synaesthetic fantasia, DIRTY BABY marries music to pictures, pictures to poems, and poems to music,” writes David Breskin of the new performance work he’s orchestrated with artist Ed Ruscha and Nels Cline, Wilco’s guitarist and a mainstay of the Los Angeles avant-garde music scene. The performance links Ruscha’s shadowy silhouettes and “censor strip” paintings to Cline’s compositions and poems Breskin has created using the structure of Middle Eastern ghazal, and beyond—through the history of western civilization to the American incursion into Iraq. First incarnated as a book and CD package, DIRTY BABY gets its second (and possibly final) performance at the Walker November 29. To tease out the threads of this transglobal, interdisciplinary, multimedia experience, Breskin and Cline joined with Doug Benidt of the Walker’s performing arts department and web editor Paul Schmelzer for an e-mail exchange.

Paul Schmelzer

You’ve spoken at length about why you chose the ghazal as your poetic form, including at Artinfo.com, where you explained, “I’ve always been attracted to highly restrictive forms.” With such a West Coast focus—at least two of the three collaborators, Ed Ruscha and Nels Cline, are strongly identified with Los Angeles—was it difficult bringing in a form from such a vastly different geography?

David Breskin

Geography may be destiny but it doesn’t necessarily have to be prison. Ed was born in Omaha, and if he’s a native of anywhere it’s Oklahoma, where he grew up and spent his formative years. He didn’t move to LA until college when he went to art school, and since then he’s become deeply associated with the place. That Nels is from LA is the plain but simple truth, but he’s travelled all around the world for years and now lives in New York City. I am born and raised in Chicago—and you can never wash the Chicago out of anyone who is from there—but went to school in Providence, then lived in New York for 10 years, then was paroled to San Francisco, where I’ve lived since 1990.

The point is: we are all from our mothers, but have the freedom to travel across time and space and use whatever’s out there. I believe white gay midgets should be able to inhabit the voices of straight black basketball players, and that women should be able to inhabit the lives of men, that harpists can learn about musical shape from dancers, that it is okay for filmmakers to use what they learned from painters, and this is what the whole damn thing is about. And yes, one can time-travel back to an ancient form and pull it forward.

Yes, the ghazal may seem a wacky choice, but it’s been used (and abused!) plenty in English over the years, and it ain’t verboten. You are correct—it’s difficult, but I assure you the difficulty is aesthetic, not geographic. They are hard to build, and one can get strung out on the scaffolding pretty badly. But DIRTY BABY was never supposed to be about LA: it’s about our slice of world history and how we got to where we are and why we went astray in Iraq, which is the neighborhood where “civilization”—quote unquote—started, or so the history books taught us.

I looked at lots of forms before settling on this one. I knew I needed a righteous capital “F” form, because Ed’s work is so formally tight—predetermined and controlled—and it wouldn’t make any sense to me to do a book with Ed’s work that had poems in every odd shape, in and out of meter, blank verse, a sestina here, a sonnet there, a haiku as an after-dinner mint. For Ed, that would be insensitive to the work itself. In the ghazal I found a form that I felt could be a good sparring partner with Ed’s pictures: bright-lined delineation, hyper-clarity, capacity for concision, narrative and episodic potential, a richness of repetition and sound. Although I’d heard and loved Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan singing ghazals, that wasn’t why I chose the form: I liked that the form was fit for music, every bit as much as blues, because music was always going to be integral to this project.

The last part of the answer is this: in my search among the scattered ruins of poetic forms I’d never tried before or been scared of or was curious about, the ghazal was intriguing because it is so fiercely and finely architectural, and I was either not crazy about or actively disliked most of the ghazals I’d read in English. So I took it as a kind of perverse challenge. The fact that the ghazal came from the Middle East and Side B of the book was going to be about Iraq was just icing on the cake.

Doug Benidt

From language to image to sound—the concept of the “found” permeates this project. Did this notion prove to be mud, or gas, or glue in its creation?


How about pyroclastic flow? It is certifiably true, as a writer, that everything we do is with “found” materials because that is language itself and we invent precious little of it. For me, all language is found. To use all your suggestions: it’s mud because you build bricks out of it; it’s gas because it’s what you put in your car to get somewhere; it’s glue because it holds the carbon-fiber composite wings of your plane together, without which no lift buddy and you’re fresh outta luck.

As far as Ed’s work being “found,” it is so in two senses: all the language he mines is also already out there, and all the work in this book already existed. It just never existed in this shape before, in these sequences, in this context, with these ideas attached, and set to music and poetry. In the beginning of the project, Ed and I sat down to discuss whether he would make new work for the project or whether I would mine the 2,400 drawings and 1,200 paintings he’d made by then. We decided on the latter and in this he gave me complete freedom, which was an empowering and scary gift. I spent a solid week in the archive looking at slides of 3,600 pictures, attempting to “find” a clue, an idea, a concept for the book. It took me a long time to figure it out after all that looking, but in that sense I had to find work that itself was already “found.”


Ruscha’s work—unlike that of Gerhard Richter, who was the subject of a book you created with Bill Frisell—uses a lot of text: often cryptic, sometimes clever text. As a poet, how did Ruscha’s text influence your poetry?


Ed’s texts and pictures are inextricably intertwined and, in a sense, one and the same. I gave myself certain rules when starting, and an important one was that the title of each poem would need to be exactly the same as the title of Ed’s picture. This felt honest, right, and true, and true to the actuality that Ed’s work came first, and I was both recontextualizing it and using it as a trigger. This also felt right because I tend to “think” in titles, and the titles of my poems often come before the poem: the title itself is the germ, the poem the fully developed sickness.

Another influence of Ed’s language here is reflected in my choice of the ghazal. Anyone sensitive to Ruscha should be hearing his pictures as much as seeing them. The sound of language is vital to Ruscha. So I felt that a rhyming form would be useful, to give that heightened sense of music in the language. The problem was I hadn’t written rhyming poetry since eighth grade, and in most Western forms (and by that I don’t mean cowboy poetry) the rhyme comes at the end of the line. Well, I thought a sequence of 66 poems with end lines rhyming might quickly end up feeling like Bruce Nauman’s Clown Torture—and not in a good way. A signal beauty of the ghazal, for my purposes, is that the rhyme is not at the end of the line, but rather internal, and always immediately before the refrain. And I use slant rhymes and half-rhymes and quarter-rhymes and maybe even some dime-rhymes. Meaning, one can be subtle and not clunky and make the repetition work for you rather than against you. Ed is one of the most repetitious great artists of our time. Rhyme’s about many things but it’s certainly about repetition, pattern, difference, and similarity. These are qualities you’d be hard-pressed to write out of Ed’s oeuvre.

Third thing I’d say is that the key move of the project, and the actual foundation for the book, was focusing only on pictures where Ed’s language could not be seen, except in the titles themselves. This “shazzam” moment for me was a freeing idea in so many ways. Previous to it, for the musical part of the project I thought I would need a singer/songwriter, who would write songs with lyrics to accompany the pictures. I’d spoken to Jon Brion about this idea and was headed in this general direction. But once I’d settled on only pictures with censor strips—what Ed calls “dumb blocks”—the language was pushed down in a way, underneath the surface of the picture, both metaphorically and visually, and I felt I could go in a more abstract, purely instrumental direction with the music. Enter Nels.


Nels, Ed Ruscha’s work wouldn’t be described as expressionistic, and David’s poetry for the project uses the ghazal form, which he characterizes as “super restrictive.” You’re known as a master of the guitar solo, an art form revered for being improvisational, even as it might be more planned than audiences know. Talk about restraint and its opposite, both in your music and in the project in particular.

Nels Cline

If one listens to DIRTY BABY, one will hear very few guitar solos, and certainly no “barn burners” or shredding. The concepts behind the music, as envisioned in certain ways both vague/open and clear/codified by David Breskin, are primarily about composition, mood, and attempting to assist with the elucidation of his narrative (“Side A”) and his messages/ideas. The guitar playing on this project is generally very restrained, sometimes because of my attempt to honor a style or genre (as on “No Mercy” from “Side B”), but also because at the time of the recording I could barely play due to a strange shoulder/arm/hand illness that robbed me of more than half of my left hand strength and dexterity. But I had not planned any fleet finger wiggling moments anyway!

There was a lot of freedom in this assignment, but also the need for effective illumination and compatibility with the paintings and text. Use of contrast is, to me, always the most effective way to draw attention to something. Moments of DIRTY BABY are pretty wild, violent, caustic one minute, then mysterious, cloudy, even “pretty” the next. This is a way to make the intense parts feel more intense, the gentle parts gentler, etc. As a player, I am quite often trying to be restrained, but perhaps I don’t succeed too often. Playing with Wilco is often about restraint, especially in terms of my soloing. My (imagined?) neo-Coltrane torrent of notes is definitely not appropriate to Wilco’s music. And the classic 15-second memorable Zen-like pop guitar solo is hard for me to do. But I keep trying. In the end, DIRTY BABY is about ensemble music, not guitar music.


The range of instruments and (excellent) players for DIRTY BABY will allow for sounds ranging from acute to cacophonous. Tell us about your compositional process for a larger ensemble. Did it stretch you a bit?


It definitely stretched me, mostly because, other than an arrangement of a Quartet Music piece of mine for symphony orchestra many years ago, I had never written for such large groups. But these two ensembles were my idea. They reflect what I was “hearing” in relation to what David Breskin presented to me conceptually. My main concern was to get my harmonic/textural/improvisational blend right—to have it be as close to what I wanted to hear as possible. I do not—or did not!—really consider myself a Composer with a capital C, though I certainly have written a fair amount of music. Stepping up and getting this done was daunting, mostly because of my image of myself, not because I lack or lacked ideas or imagination. That part isn’t too difficult.

Starting to write is always the hardest part of writing music to me. But one of the things that made it a lot easier to accomplish DIRTY BABY’s music was knowing who I was going to write for. The musicians on DIRTY BABY are among my favorite and most trustworthy comrades—virtuosi and beautiful folks combined. In perhaps a kind of Ellingtonian way, I like to write music for known individuals more than for whomever. Or at least I find it very helpful in terms of fighting against abject fear, insecurity, and general trepidation. I think that David Breskin was pretty clear about some of what he envisioned for “Side A,” which is a kind of narrative suite, and the presence of Glenn Taylor’s pedal steel guitar and Bill Barrett’s harmonica, was perhaps obvious “American” colors. And the ensemble for “Side B” could achieve a vast palette of textures and colors, not only because of the actual instrumentation itself, but also the musicians’ abilities as improvisers and interpreters possessing a keen grasp of extended techniques and the like. I found that I could imagine some of these brutally short pieces when I recalled the musicians’ attributes and my experiences playing with them over the last many years. It helped! I suppose there is a bit of a “soundtrack” aspect to the assignment, but hopefully it doesn’t sound too much like 


You’re, of course, best known for your work as guitarist for Wilco, but for nearly three decades before that, you were involved with improv and avant-garde music as well: the Nels Cline Trio, Quartet Music, Destroy All Nels Cline. Does DIRTY BABY, which deviates from Wilco’s pop sensibilities quite a bit, feel like a homecoming to an early form (not that you’ve really left it)?


No. As you say, I never left my instrumental/improvisational life—not since high school! I have continued to play on many improvised and so-called “jazz” type concerts and recordings since joining Wilco, often just like all the pre-Wilco ones in that the audiences are still often quite small. I don’t really care to carve my endeavors up into categories or genres too much, but I can safely say that I will always play instrumental or improvised music.


Ed Ruscha and Wilco seem to have something in common: Americana on the surface, avant-garde deep down. How do you see these two aspects operating in your solo work, your work with Wilco, or DIRTY BABY?


I guess what you say is true. As hinted at earlier, the instrumentation of “Side A” was intentionally chosen by me to include intrinsically “American” aspects: the harmonica, pedal steel, Hammond organ. “Side B” refers to Americans in the Middle East by embracing blues, R ‘n’ B and metal (although the latter is used to refer to the United States’ alleged use of metal and hip hop as methods of torture in the interrogation of prisoners). It then also endeavors to include Middle Eastern instruments as well, such as the frame drum and certain wind instruments.

But overall, I have only a passing interest in this “Americana” genre. Wilco gets dumped into it. But since I was a boy my interest in music has been in music from all over the world, in the realm of pure sound, in music of today and of long ago. And I think that almost every musician I have played with is a version of this: a musician influenced by practically everything at one time or another. That said, I do delve into certain forms or styles associated with American music, such as blues and folk, possibly because the guitar has a certain prominence in those traditions. But I have probably listened to as much British blues and folk as American, due especially to my age, to what I heard in the late ’60s and early ’70s. DIRTY BABY has tidbits of so many types of music, but perhaps the rock, folk, and blues elements sound effectively American because it’s where I’m from. It just got inside me. But as a genre I am frankly not too fascinated 
with Americana myself. I am a mutt, a sonic polyglot.


I imagine your musical life with your wife Yuka Honda (Cibo Matto) to be a satisfying daily exchange of ideas. But how does it really work, and do you indeed influence each other?


I wish it was daily! I am on tour a lot. We have a duo called Fig that we have been recording and concertizing with on and off for the last two-plus years, and it strives to have a balance of our sensibilities. We both sing in it (a bit)! Yuka influenced me before I ever met her because I was and am a big fan of Cibo Matto. I love their mix of hip-hop and themselves, their use of sampling, their vibe. We both like electric “jazz fusion” elements, though sometimes not the same artists are favorites, but this means we both love killer grooves with cool chords. She is really refined in her groove sensitivity, which is fascinating to me, and fun, too. But truthfully, I have been on the road so much since we met that I feel that our exchange keeps getting interrupted. I look forward to any time I can spend at home with her, musical or not. And often when I finally get home she is hard at work on producing tracks by someone like Martha Wainwright or Yoko Ono, or working on the new Cibo Matto record, so I wait patiently, she waits patiently… Someday we will finish the Fig record, and while doing so I feel that we may have really exchanged and shared quite a bit, both aesthetically and technologically. I am a technological moron and she is quite savvy in that realm. I play all the time and she doesn’t really consider herself a player as much as a producer/composer.


Your first Walker gig was with your duo Scarnella (with Carla Bozulich) 12 years ago for our Summer Music & Movies series. In the interim you’ve realized many musical dreams. What have you learned? And what would you tell Nels circa 2000?


It’s true that many dreamy things have happened. I love all the music I was playing back in those earlier days. But things have certainly ramped up. One thing I have learned is that one cannot predict much in this life—at least I can’t! When I joined Wilco almost nine years ago, I also started doing more visible improvised music gigs. It all really went to another level. And so many things have happened lately that I never would have believed possible years ago. Besides playing my own music and playing with Wilco I get to perform, jam, and explore with so many inspiring individuals. Every day I feel so lucky and thankful—I kid you not.

As anyone who knows me knows, I’m a terrible businessperson, virtually incapable of creating work for myself. But people keep asking me to do wonderful things, even though I usually have little self-confidence about a lot of them. I can’t quite figure it out! People even assist me! But one thing I know is that I love to play, to create, and I have learned that it’s okay to have a little bit of tunnel vision. I am tired of apologizing to myself for being an “artist type.” Does this sound ridiculous? But in spite of any inner wavering about my abilities, I have rarely if ever wavered in my love of music, of playing, of sound. Dear Nels 2000: lighten up a bit! It’s probably going to work out after all.

“Anyone sensitive to Ruscha should be hearing his pictures as much as seeing them. The sound of language is vital to Ruscha.” —David Breskin

Nels Cline, David Breskin, and Ed Ruscha

Photo: Peak

Ed Ruscha, You and I Are in Disagreement

Ed Ruscha, Joshua Tree

Ed Ruscha, In God We Trust

Nels Cline

Photo: Benjamin Lozovsky

Ed Ruscha, Hope