Published Date Written by Timothy GillisDoug Wamble and his eight-piece jazz ensemble will perform "Yoknapatawpha," an evening-length work based on the literary works of William Faulkner at the State Theater Saturday night. The concert is one of the centerpieces of the first-ever Portland Performing Arts Festival.
Wamble is a jazz and blues composer and guitarist from Tennessee. He has played with Wynton and Branford Marsalis, and his music is featured in several of Ken Burns' documentaries, including the "The 10th Inning" and "Prohibition." Wamble also completed the full original score for Burns' feature "The Central Park Five."
With deep family roots in Oxford, Miss., the literary landscape for the Nobel-prize winning author, Wamble said his grandparents taught him early about Faulkner's people and places.
"He was a big part of growing up," he said. "His writing has also held a special place with me, so a musical version came naturally."
Wamble was in town early, to teach a guitar master class with Sharon Isbin, the multi-Grammy winning classical guitarist. He currently lives in New York, where his jazz and blues playing and composing are in demand. In addition to recording on the Marsalis record label, he has toured with Madeleine Peyroux. The New Yorker magazine said, "This acoustic guitarist, singer, and composer is a one-man compendium of avant Americana."
Commissioned by Chamber Music America and previously performed at Joe's Pub in New York City, "Yoknapatawpha" uses instrumental pieces to create impressions of Faulkner's landscapes and lyrical sections to give voice to characters from his stories. The work is a deeply textured combination of jazz, blues, and traditional American music written for an octet of guitar, bass, piano, drums and horns.
In a complementary program, the Portland Public Library hosted a discussion of "Faulkner and Music" last Friday, featuring Colby College distinguished professor Cedric Bryant leading a discussion of Faulkner stories and their moods and characters, illustrated by recorded excerpts from "Yoknapatawpha."
Given the jazz work's roots in writing, the Festival organizers reached out to Bryant, the Lee Family Professor of English at Colby College and a specialist in William Faulkner and Southern regionalism, 19th- and 20th-century American literature, and African-American poetry, fiction, drama and non-fiction writing. Inspired by the work's evocation of the atmosphere and characters of its literary source, he agreed to lead a discussion in collaboration with the Festival and the Portland Public Library. Bryant discussed how Wamble's music is an appropriate tribute to the content of several specific Faulkner works, especially "The Sound and the Fury," "As I Lay Dying," and the much-anthologized short story "A Rose for Emily."
"We took three or four Wamble pieces to him, and he was really intrigued," said Kara Larson, president of PPAF. "So he developed a program based on the link between literature and music."
"This is a jazz homage to Faulkner," Bryant said. "I've taught Faulkner for 23 years, but I've never taught it like this."
Wamble's music explores the tensions between reality and myth, reason and intuition, and often looks at Faulkner's works from another point of view.
In "Looking All Around," from part two of "Yoknapatawpha," Wamble musically mirrors the opening section of "The Sound and the Fury" wherein the "tale told by an idiot" — a reference to Shakespeare's MacBeth — is played out from the point of view of the idiot. In the novel, only this section offers the first-person perspective of Benjy, the 33-year-old with severe mental handicaps. Benjy and Luster are looking for Luster's lost quarter. Benjy hears golfers calling "Caddie," and he gets upset, thinking they are calling for his sister, Caddy, who is not present at this point in the novel's action.
"It's not just Luster's quarter that's lost," Bryant said. "Also, his sister, in 1928, is not there anymore. She is also lost. Benjy's also looking for his older brother, Quentin, (who commits suicide in the second section). His father is lost (dead), and his sister is lost (gone physically, and loses her virginity)."
While the rest of Faulkner's novel shifts to a third-person perspective, Wamble's song remains interior throughout, echoing the novel with phrases like "jimson weed" and "smelling like trees." In Benjy's warped mind, he equates the smell of trees with his sister, Caddy. When she loses her virginity in the novel, she no longer smells like trees.
In the next song in the suite, "One Lick Less," Wamble is investigating Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying," the literary tour de force told from multiple perspectives. Wamble is focusing in on the lone perspective of Jewel, the illegitimate son of the title character, Addie. He's pining for the lessening of death activity that seems to consume his family. His brother Cash is making Addie's coffin. His sister is fanning the dying Addie, as she rests in bed. Anse, the husband, and Darl, the intuitive brother who has the most chapters told from his point of view, are bickering about whether or not to make one more trip to sell lumber before she dies, because "it means three dollars." All this activity has Jewel keep wishing for one lick less from Cash's adze.
Bryant sees a tonal shift from the Faulkner work to the Wamble music. "The second part relates to Doug's optimistic responses to Addie's view of the world, which is tragic, but Doug's response is positive - through the collaborative view of jazz," Bryant said. "Faulkner was always exploring states of consciousness. Doug's music is like a sound-map of his words."
The final selection that Bryant discussed was "A Rose for Emily," the gothic short story that features murder and necrophilia, and an unsuspected murderess within the town's ranks. The song "Take this Poison" by Wamble is a sly, comic rift on the homicidal spinster. It's about a town's epiphany regarding one of their lady neighbors, but Wamble's take is comic, not tragic. "It's got a kind of allegro to it," Bryant said.