Adaptation Across Mediums: An Interview with David Nagler

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On October 26th, I got to sit down at Big Shoulders Coffee in Chicago with David Nagler to discuss his upcoming show.

Nagler is a multi-instrumentalist who performs around New York City. He recently Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems (David Nagler & Friends, October 2016), featuring native Chicago artists. The album is based on a selection of Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems (1916).

Listen to the album here.

Interviewer: In many other mediums, there isn’t nearly the collaboration that there is with music. How did this collaboration process shape your understanding of these (Carl Sandburg’s) poems?

David Nagler: The collaboration process…sorry, by the collaboration process you mean –

I: Working with other artists.

DN: Oh, ok. Well, I have to say a lot of this was largely a solo project. I kind of have the idea for it a little under twenty years ago. I first started writing the songs about 8 years ago. Maybe, 8 or 9. That said, I knew who I wanted to work with on it, and so there were a handful of people even before the Chicago guest vocalists came into it. Like Max Avery Lichtenstein is a friend of mine who kind of helped produce it. Jon Natchez who is a multi-instrumentalist who plays in The War On Drugs and played with the band Beirut. He’s someone that I knew I wanted to work with on it because of his mastery of so many instruments that I don’t know how to play.

I: If I might interrupt for a moment, what instruments do you play?

DN: The main ones are piano and guitar and offshoots of that. So, I dabble in bass and drums.

I: You seem to have a pretty comprehensive understanding of all of them which is why I was curious.

DN: I mean – thanks. The other thing I do is – I started to doing string arrangements and horn arrangements 15 years ago, or something, maybe a little bit more.

I: I hear they’re tricky.

DN: They are. And that was just something I learned by doing it. I wasn’t in school for it or anything. I just took what little theory I knew and started figuring it out.

I: You mention in earlier interviews that music wasn’t the primary career that you wanted to go into, but you never mention how you get into it.

DN: Oh, right. Well, I went to Northwestern for film, but I’ve been playing music since I was five or so. So, I just – I’ve just done it always. It’s just always been my passion. So, I just kept doing it, and you do it long enough, you meet new people. That’s just sort of how that works. But going back to the question though, I don’t think that the project itself was conceived in a collaborative way. But it kind of became that – in terms of, I knew I wanted the band to be ten or eleven people for the recording. And then a couple of years ago, I had the idea of all the Chicago guests singing on it. And that was kind of when the collaboration started, once the project was kind of cemented to a degree. I would say with Jon and Max, those were two people that I would talk to about demos, and we’d be in touch and “Oh well maybe we’ll change this,” and everything. But a lot more of the collaborative aspects happened when everything was in sort of a certain place.

I: For me the use of percussion was evoking a menacing tone. The piano was controlling place. The strings were moving the wind around you as you were listening. But what instruments did you see taking on narrative elements during composition?

DN: Let’s see…the wind and the horn instruments were kind of the primary ones I would say for that. The strings had elements of it. There’s a couple of things I guess that are sort of worth mentioning. And these are just random ones. There’s the poem “Under a Telephone Pole” which is the final song in the collection. That is the one where the final lyric is a “copper wire,” so it’s like a “telephone wire” – that allows for communication between people; and that was one where that wire to me is that string line at the very end, where the string kind of – one of the violins just plays this long note before the song ends, and that to me was the copper wire. So, that was one element. There was also the song before it, “Gone,” the two wind instruments in that are a bass clarinet and French horn? No! Trombone. So those two combined with this sort of vibraphone that plays in it as well – those three instruments kind of have this almost dialogue going on in –  in terms of them being very much like voices that you sort of hear. I haven’t really talked about this stuff, so it’s interesting.

I: I’m very interested in it. I played the cello for ten years, and I was thinking while listening to it, I wonder what he’s going for with all of these instruments.

DN: Well it’s more than I’ve done in the past. Because in the past a lot of my strings arrangements that I’ve done either for my own band songs or other projects that I’ve done, have been more to fill a space in a sort of way. But this is more about creating or amplifying certain voices that I feel are within the poems. So, the wind instruments in “Gone” are significant.

I: Well let me ask you this – where I got this question from was, what narrative element does the accordion represent in “Happiness?”

DN: Ok, that’s the most obvious one, where he refers to an accordion and then the accordion comes on, and that’s something in doing this project – one of the things about musical theater that I tend to like the least is when it’s very deliberate, in terms of – the music heavily mirrors what’s going on in the lyrics.

I: It wasn’t obvious, to me at least. It seemed like it fit.

DN: For instance, certain styles of music and musical theater are often used to, in a very deliberate way, to mirror what the lyrics are about, but I didn’t want to do that too much. But this was the one exception that I made, where there’s a reference to an accordion and then an accordion plays. I didn’t want to go overboard, but I felt it needed it.

I: I would agree with that. I’m not a composer, but listening to it as a member of the audience, it felt like if it wasn’t there, I don’t know if the song would have resonated as much.

DN: Yeah, I didn’t want leave it out in a way where it would have been so obvious where “There’s a reference to an accordion! Why didn’t you put one?” It just had to happen.

I: Maybe because it’s just such a strange instrument, that people don’t use very often.

DN: Right.

I: What musical techniques did you use? So not just which instruments, but which techniques did you use to create the vivid imagery of Chicago in this album?

DN: I kind of went for – well, I knew right away that I wanted it to not be anachronistic. I knew I wanted it to be that if the poems were set in the early twentieth century, I wanted most of the instruments to have already existed in the early twentieth century. My one exception was there was a Farfisa organ that I had on one song. But otherwise I wanted to keep it to acoustic instruments. From then, it’s a matter of which you use to sort of evoke certain aspects of the city. Whether it’s like certain Sandburg poems like “Fog” or “Lost” – are very specific in how they depict the environment, around what Sandburg felt at the time. Whether it’s Lake Michigan or the city skyline as it existed at the time. So strings are always very good for keeping a sense of atmosphere. I would say it’s mostly the string and the wind instruments that are the two groups of instruments that are the most helpful for me in terms of evoking that sort of feeling, but hopefully also the environment as well.

I: You didn’t mention this one, but I felt it most in the first song, “Chicago.” Is the melody in that song evocative of an existing melody? It sounds like an anthem.

DN: Ok, yeah.

I: It sounded – not like I was at a ball game – but I was looking out over the lake or from a high building in this triumphant way, looking out over all of Chicago.

DN: I knew I wanted it to have a theme in it. And I think the decision was that there will be the melody, and a horn will play the melody, and then the vocal will replicate that melody. And that will hopefully introduce the whole piece. It’s like a fanfare, is the word.

I: That’s what I was looking for. Not anthem, fanfare. It’s been a while.

DN: Well, anthem, if it works.

I: Yeah, it’s close.

DN: Fanfare is what I was going for.

I: There’s another song, speaking of “Chicago,” that seems to share the melody. Not the whole song, but it’s present. It’s “Happiness.” It seems to have a small piece that mimics the melody of “Chicago.” Was there intention in that?

DN: That one might have been inadvertent, because I do it very intentionally at the end in “Under a Telephone Pole” where the strings sort of (mimes the melody), but that was intentional in mirroring “Chicago.” The “Happiness” one might have just been an accident.

I: A happy accident. Like Bob Ross.

How does place effect your creative process? Is it a resource that you draw on? What inspires you beyond the process of connecting and adapting? Is place something that has a big influence on your work?

DN: Um, yes. I mean, the answer is yes. But it’s rare that it’s this intentional or this kind of blatant. There were a couple of things in play. It’s Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems, so you have poems that are written in and about Chicago. Another aspect of it was – for me – and this was after all the songs were written – is two years ago I went down to the Carl Sandburg Home which is in North Carolina. And that is this…

I: That’s where your mom got the book, right?

DN: Yes, and it’s in Flat Rock, which is twenty-five minutes from Asheville. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Asheville.

I: No, I’ve never been North Carolina.

DN: I mean, Asheville is a great town, and it’s surrounded by a lot of really beautiful – it’s near the Blue Ridge Mountains; it’s very beautiful. And so, it’s a very pastoral landscape there, and it’s really nice. Having been there, that was something I connected with even after the songs were written, but I think I had in mind, “Oh, I want bring that into the recording as much as I can.”

The sense of place hovers over this project in a way that is – obvious – but intentional, I guess. I guess I’ve never written – sometimes when you write you have a place in mind or a time of your life you’re trying to evoke. But this one is so based on Geography that it was at another level than I’ve ever had before.

I: Is it something you think you’ll explore again?

DN: Maybe. I guess this is the thing – one of the things that I talked about with this project is that I love how organically it came about. People ask, “Oh, is there another poet you’re going to tackle?” And I’m like, “I don’t know.” Or, “Are you going to do another project this ambitious?” And I’m like, “I don’t know.” That’s a lot of the significance of these, how it just evolved really organically. So the answer to that is maybe.

I: Well, I’d be happy to see more.

There’s a level of the unknown – and you say that this came about organically – and there’s a level of the unknown while creating. And once the piece exists it rarely takes on its original vision. At least that’s how I and other artists have found it to be. What do you think this collection has become? What shape has it taken for you?

DN: Well, that’s where I can come back to the collaborative part, because making a record was this interesting process where I made some of it in New York, some of it in Chicago, did my vocals in Connecticut, and mixed in Woodstock. And now the record’s finished, and I’m doing some shows. The show tomorrow night at the library has a ten-person band, but it’s also got all these guests on it as well. So they’ll all be there in one place performing at once. That’s not something that has ever happened. I performed it in New York a handful of times, but that was me and a band, and I sang all the songs. Or most of them. But this one is like, I’m going to sing three quarters of them. And there’s going to be another quarter that are sung by those guests. That’s the sort of next level of it for me, getting to perform it with people who were on the record but have never done it in this context, getting to perform it at Chicago Public Library.

I: It’s exciting. It’s exciting to think that the process isn’t completed yet. So it’s not just doing it over and over again. You get to have a new experience tomorrow.

So how do you see adaptation working between mediums?

DN: Well, it has a lot to do with artists thinking in a multi-disciplinary way. For me this came about by reading poetry and saying, “Oh, these look like song lyrics.” Then taking them from their poetic state attaching melodies and chords and everything to them, and they become something else. I think that’s kind of same for most endeavors. An example for me is someone who kind of helped me, in terms of conceiving how I could perform it – an amazing Chicago based writer/director – stage writer/director named Seth Bockley who did an adaption of the novel by Roberto Bolaño, 2666, which went up at the Goodman in February, I want to say. I flew out for it because I’m such a big fan of Roberto Bolaño’s, and Seth’s a really nice guy. I think that was matter of him and Robert Falls from the Goodman – Robert Falls in particular, reading it and saying, “There’s a stage work here.” So, he read the novel and then worked with Seth to make it happen. And that’s where I think a lot of this happens. Just being able to envision what could exist in one state become something else. There’s another example for me. A lot of this is theater based. There’s a New York experimental group called the Wooster Group, who I’m a huge, huge fan of. And I go to see their shows whenever I can. And their entire kind of raison d’être is taking a work whether it’s a movie – could be like a classic or a piece of B movie fluff or a record or a historical document and recontextualizing it theatrically. And that’s something that they do that’s always at least entertaining. It’s pretty amazing. I think it’s examples of things like that should make artist believe they can do that whenever they want. There are limitations to it in terms of the material. Because a lot of times you have to get rights. But the great thing about this project is that of his poems are in the public domain. So there’s that, and I met with Carl Sandburg home, and I just recently met with Carl Sandburg’s granddaughter. They’re all on board so it’s great. But that’s something that is really interesting to me, the idea of taking something and making something else.

I: What did you talk about with his granddaughter?

DN: We talked about his work and his reputation, we talked about the election, and you know we talked about North Carolina. We talked about her family. She’s amazing – an amazing, amazing woman. And I did the show in North Carolina, and I met her the next day. It was really great. She’s so supportive of it, and she said, “There have been other people who have taken Sandburg’s poetry and set them to music” but she really liked this one in particular. Which is great.

I: Yeah, that’s excellent. I want to go back to the discussion of how a lot of your inspiration was from theatrical examples. As I was listening, I couldn’t help but think the songs were like a musical going on along the streets. You may not know, but do you think this project may evolve into something else?

DN: No. I mean I thought about it at first. I met with – the place where I’m performing in New York is called Joe’s Pub which is part of The Public Theater – who, you know, were the ones that did Hamilton and shows like that. And they kind of – I spoke with someone and talked about it – I’ve always had a hard time attaching a narrative to this. I’ve always been more – I refer to it as a song cycle, and that’s the way I view it – and there was – one of the people I met from the public theater mentioned, “Oh, there’s another song cycle by William Finn you should check out.” So, they were helpful in that regard. I’ve never been able to fully view it as theatrical. If someone else – I guess – sort of similar to what I was talking about – my work is kind of done to a degree, and if someone else used it as something else and wanted my involvement, then I’d be happy to do it. But I’ve always had a hard time bringing it beyond where it currently is, which is like, it’s a record and a performance with heavily theatrical and biographical elements. When I did it in North Carolina, it was a solo show, half of it was songs and half of it was poems. The poems were used to kind of give a little more background. The songs were kind of amplified in a way, and I’m not sure if it worked one way or another. But that’s what the goal was. And I think that’s what I like about it.

I: I like that about it too.

DN: I’ll have that tomorrow too. There’ll be some poetry in addition to the songs.

I: My final questions are more about literature than music. What do you think makes good literature?

(David pauses)

I: Well, you saw Carl Sandburg’s poems and said, “There’s potential in this.” It evoked some something. So what do you see in other pieces of literature that make it good, or level up to what Sandburg made you feel?

DN: I mean, in a broad sense it’s communicative, in terms of its being able to impart something to the reader (or listener in this case). What I like about Sandburg’s poems were the clarity of them. Which is not to say that all poetry should have that, but it connected with me on that level. And so, I think what great literature does is it connects with people on different levels. And it depends on what level they are willing to receive it on. Sometimes that’s not even part of the issue. Whether or not it’s good is if it works. But great literature just connects with people, and it can be in a variety of ways. It could be connecting in all of them, in one of them. It’s just a matter of feeling something when you read it. It elicits an emotion which could be joy or fear or sadness or hilarity.

I: It seems like you recreate all of those different elements, being able to connect with people, being able to feel emotion within the music –

DN: Oh, good.

I: Which is incredible, to move across mediums and still maintain the elements that make something great.

DN: There were certain aspects of it, I guess that I just wanted to amplify. The way there were sort of narrators in the songs. I wanted to try and bring that out a little more. Some of them worked in ways I didn’t expect. The poem “Gone” is an example where I was always a little so so on it. I wasn’t sure if I’d actually – I was never convinced I did a really good job with it; but then when I did the show in North Carolina, before the show went on, Carl Sandburg’s granddaughter said to me, “You’re going to do that song about Chick Lorimer?” And I was like, “Yeah. It’s on the list.” I was actually considering cutting it.

I: Oh, no! Well, more happy accidents.

What are you working on right now?

DN: Ugh, not a lot. I’m trying to figure out what’s next. I don’t really know. I have a band called Nova Social that has been around for years. So I’ve been writing songs with the intention of doing them with that band. I think that’s kind of it. I have these sort of regular shows in New York that I do. One is a piano bar show called The Oracle Show where I do songs based on themes. So there’s learning and preparing songs for that. And there’s another show called Cabinet of Wonders that I play in the band for. But as far as new material goes, I’m just getting started figuring it out.

Interview by Alexandra Stanislaw