Makings is a song cycle and body of work based around unpublished writings by my grandmother, acclaimed author/activist Tillie Olsen. Ten years in creation, a recording of this music has just been released.
The songs in Makings were composed using what Tillie called her "Blueys" -- blue and white sheets of typewriter paper on which she wrote notes, ideas, bits of prose and poetry. They were her journals, but also more than that: a writer practicing her craft, putting words and ideas into form.
I began working on this music in 2004, when I discovered a box of the Blueys while helping Tillie move out of her San Francisco apartment. Something about them immediately struck me -- the strange poetry of them, the evocative language, the way the words arranged themselves in abstract patterns and gestures on the paper. And of course, the vivid intimacy of reading my grandmother's deepest thoughts and feelings, of seeing the hidden parts of her that I had previously only barely glimpsed. I knew I wanted to engage creatively with this material, so I asked her if she would be open to a collaboration. She agreed without hesitation.
Not long after this, Tillie was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and began a long, slow descent into a different world. As we cared for her in the end of her life, I discovered more file boxes of Blueys -- about 20 boxes in all, containing thousands and thousands of pages. A lifetime, a whole universe of words. I dove into this work, bringing the Blueys with me to the Ucross Foundation, in the wide open oil fields of Wyoming; to the Elk Horn Gallery in Iowa, not far from Omaha, where Tillie grew up; to a family cabin in the woods in Inverness, California; and finally to studios in the Bay Area, where I recorded and mixed the music I had created. In all these places, Tillie was with me in spirit, as my guide, my companion, and my muse.
Some of the songs are direct translations of Tillie's writings into song, a page of writing set to music. Others are heavily edited and collaged, threads untangled from the thousands of pages and re-woven into new images, narratives, trains of thought. The Blueys were not finished works, and as such, I chose to treat them as raw material, the clay from which to sculpt. But every word in Makings comes from the Blueys, every little phrase was originally typed or scrawled by Tillie's hands. And throughout this process, Tillie has been with me, guiding me towards this finished work. I have brought everything I know and love about Tillie to this music, striving to create something that she could stand behind and to make her proud.
The resulting work is comprised of 25 songs, in which Tillie's words weave through tapestries of guitar, piano, percussion, toy instruments and found objects. The songs are steeped in history and memory, the cycles of life and death, an awe and reverence for the beauty of nature. Tillie believed in expressing the complexities of the human experience in all of its joy and pain, in "makings affirmations on the side of life", and this spirit is what carries the songs in Makings.
Tillie passed away in 2009, and now, ten years after I first discovered the Blueys, the project is hsa been completed. Please stay tuned for updates on performances of Makings.