Phil Kline’s ‘Zippo Songs’ explores Vietnam’s lighter side

Phil Kline

by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., July 7, 2004) – When Phil Kline first thought up the idea for “Zippo Songs,” an avant-garde song cycle based on texts gleaned from American soldiers’ Vietnam-era cigarette lighters, he had no expectations that the piece would resonate in a particularly immediate way.

Kline – who performs the songs with his ensemble in “Zippo Songs: Airs of War and Lunacy,” at Mass MoCA on Saturday at 8 – first became aware of cigarette-lighter poems – short, pithy, haiku-like rhymes and reflections on war and death that American GIs inscribed on their lighters in Vietnam -- when he read an article about them in Vanity Fair Magazine in 1997.

The poems, several of which were quoted in the article, immediately captured Kline’s attention. He saw them as a unique genre of literature that he might incorporate into his own work as a composer who often built pieces around texts or concepts.

But Kline also worried at the time that no one would care to revisit an obscure bit of culture that came out of the Vietnam experience.

“I wondered if anyone gives a damn about the Vietnam war any more,” said Kline in a recent phone interview from his New York apartment. “I thought I might as well be talking about the Civil War.”

In spite of those doubts about the relevance of the material to contemporary audiences, Kline persevered with the project. He found funding and tracked down hundreds of the original poems from a 300-page catalog he found on eBay. He culled through 200 poems, grouped them thematically, and began writing music for them for his quartet, including vocalist Theo Bleckmann, Ethel violinist Todd Reynolds, Bang on a Can percussionist David Cossin, and himself on guitar.

In the end, when he came up with 30 minutes of music, he realized he needed something else to complete the cycle. Around that time, Kline stumbled across a Bush administration parody in the New Yorker Magazine which included a quote from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that began, “As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns,” and continued along in that inscrutable vein.

“A light bulb went off and I thought, there’s my guy,” said Kline. “He’s a prevaricator in a suit. For whatever he is, he’s a somewhat brilliant wordsmith. It really tickled me that Rumsfeld takes great, boyish delight in this. It all comes through in his language. You can tell he gets off on entertaining people. I don’t think Dick Cheney cares about that.”

So Kline had the basis for the introduction to the cycle, called “Three Rumsfeld Songs,” which together with the “Zippo Songs” and a concluding piece, a setting of poet David Shapiro’s “Funeral of Jan Palach,” comprises the entire work.

Then current events intervened, and two months before the piece was to have its world premiere in New York in May 2003, U.S. troops invaded Iraq. Suddenly, Kline’s obscure piece of music based on Vietnam-era cultural detritus with an after-the-fact nod connecting it to the Bush administration was instantly recontextualized into an incredibly timely piece of political protest music.

Suddenly, forty-year old etchings like “Death is my business and business has been good” or “Let me win your heart and mind or I’ll burn your hut down” took on shockingly contemporary relevance.

“I had no idea there was going to be a war,” said Kline, marveling in retrospect how things turned out – not just a war, but something of a controversial war. “I backed into being contemporary. I guess there’s something to be said for it. A stuck clock is exactly right twice a day. There are truths in the material, and they will ring true. I just didn’t realize they were going to ring quite that strikingly true.”

The music Kline composed for the “Zippo Songs” is haunting and provocative, artful settings of earthy lyrics that give them a transcendent, floating quality. Kline’s vocabulary as a composer includes lessons absorbed from the minimalism that serves as bedrock for much of the avant-garde. But as heard on the CD of the songs released this past January on Bang on a Can’s Cantaloupe label, is as equally informed by other influences, including classic rock and early Renaissance music.

“I grew up with minimalism but I’m very impatient with it,” said Kline, who was born in Pittsburgh, raised in Akron, and who studied English literature and music at Columbia University and Mannes College of Music. “I try to keep myself entertained when I write. Cleverness isn’t enough. You have to lay something out there with a generosity of spirit.”

A member of the downtown New York rock scene of the early-1980s, Kline co-founded the art-punk band the Del-Byzanteens with filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and painter James Nares. He was also a member of Glenn Branca’s famed guitar ensemble.

“I was always schizoid, not from one camp or the other,” said Kline. “Even when I was twelve, I really knew my classical music, but I also really knew my rock and roll. Playing in the late Seventies and early Eighties in New York on the downtown rock scene, it was very hard to separate it from the avant-garde. You had figures like Glenn Branca really obviously lumping the two together.

“I saw what David Byrne was doing, and thought that was great. You can have this band and be successful and be able to do ballets and film scores. I always wanted to be a composer more than anything. I always sort of hated the rock thing, the clubs, bellowing over a p.a. system, trying to communicate to people not on your wavelength.

“Then again, I might have felt differently had I been in a better band.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 9, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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