Phil Kline's 'Zippo Songs' sound their alarm
by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., July 11, 2004) – You couldn’t have planned it better. As composed, Phil Kline’s “Zippo Songs: Airs of War and Lunacy” song cycle began with the sound of a siren alarm evoked with precision feedback by Kline on his electric guitar at the outset of his ensemble’s program at the outdoor café at Mass MoCA on Saturday night.

A little over one hour later, as the music faded out on Kline’s new musical setting of Jim Morrison’s “The End,” an emergency vehicle siren from somewhere nearby provided the perfect Cage-ian coda, sending a shiver through the crowd and reminding listeners that the bittersweet, whimsical and ironic program they had just heard has its very grounding and foundation in a world of real emergencies. Life and death is not just the stuff of art; art, in this case, merely makes it tolerable.

Kline’s carefully composed “Zippo Songs” started off with the inscrutable utterings of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. As sung by Corey Dargel in arrangements that featured violinist Todd Reynolds of the string quartet Ethel and percussionist David Cossin of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, with Kline on electric guitar, Rumsfeld’s almost nonsensical, impossible-to-parse ravings were turned into the stuff of ethereal poetry and beauty.

“It’s the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase and you see it twenty times and you think, my goodness, were there that many vases?” sang Dargel over the minimalist pulse of Cossin’s vibraphones, in a sense providing the musical transcription of the picture that Rumsfeld was painting, presumably of what happens when cable TV news plays the same image over and over again.

Dargel handled the Rumsfeld texts with delicate aplomb, striking in appearance with his shaved head and nerd eyeglasses, dressed like all the musicians in a white shirt and tie. The glasses came off for the “Zippo Songs” proper, songs based on the pithy, haiku-like poems etched by Vietnam-era GIs into their cigarette lighters. The contrast between the earthy reality described in the texts, of living life in the face of death as described in the poems, and of Kline’s music, of Dargel’s swooning soprano and the plaintive melodies doubled by Reynolds and Kline on their strings, was both comforting and jarring.

Kline powered “Been to hell lived to tell” with a heavy-metal riff out of Heart’s “Barracuda,” as Reynolds plucked a pizzicato pattern behind Dargel’s vocals on the most pop-like number of the evening – it could have been an experimental tune by R.E.M., especially given Dargel’s resemblance to Michael Stipe. “If I had a farm” and “When I’m dead” were more intrinsically dramatic, and one began noticing the interplay of the red and blue lighting splashing against the old, crumbling brick wall that aptly served as the scarred backdrop for this concert staged at MoCA’s outdoor café, the post-industrial setting only enhancing the sense of violence and decay littered throughout the songs.

The innocence of Cossin’s childlike xylophone heightened the tension in lines like “Life has a flavor the protected will never know,” and Kline’s fat, jaunty bass line captured the mocking, scatological tone of “When I’m Dead.” The cycle proper concluded with a setting of David Shapiro’s “Funeral of Jan Palach,” in which Cossin’s vibes and Reynold’s violin spun a gossamer web through which Dargel ascended to the heavenly beyond, as Kline’s counterpoint on guitar suggested the hell that lie below.

Then that ambulance or police siren began to wail, snapping listeners whose imaginations had been plunged into the jungles of Vietnam or the deserts of Iraq for the past hour back into the here and now and the very reality of death and violence on our own, naked streets, and in doing so, reminding us why we need new music to make sense of it all.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 13, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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