Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, her second book of poetry, published posthumously in 1965, contains some of the most chillingly evocative and memorable language one can imagine. Seattle saxophonist and woodwind player Greg Sinibaldi, drawn to Plath’s verse in a way that ultimately translated to music, has responded with the beautiful, experimental Ariel. “The pieces aren’t necessarily narratives of the poems, but more about the thoughts and feelings I had while encountering the work,” Sinibaldi explains.
To realize this unique project Sinibaldi formed a trio with his fellow artists-in-residence at the University of Washington, guitarist Ryan Ferreira and drummer Ted Poor. Throughout the album he plays EWI (electronic wind instrument), a Nyle Steiner invention of the ’70s that has had a number jazz adapters over the years but remains fairly rare. “It’s a wind-driven synthesizer with a breath sensor that knows air velocity and pressure,” Sinibaldi explains. “The model I play has onboard sounds and also the ability to control MIDI instruments. I run it through some hardware effects and then through a software environment I made via the SuperCollider language. Most of the harmonic content comes from a mix of the EWI sounds and the pitch-shifters I made in SuperCollider utilizing varying parallel intervals. I like that you can tell it’s a synthesizer but it doesn't sound keyboard-based.”
In the opaque and otherworldly harmony of the EWI, the more tangible rub and growl of Ferreira’s guitar and the rhythmic and textural fluidity of Poor’s drumming, one hears aural parallels to Plath’s haunting and often startling stanzas in Ariel. “Arrival of the Bee Box,” for instance, finds Plath in awe upon receiving just that, a box of bees. She listens to the sound inside the box, and her descriptions, one could argue, are musical:
It is the noise that appalls me most of all,
The unintelligible syllables.
It is like a Roman mob,
Small, taken one by one, by my god, together!
I lay my ear to furious Latin.
“I wanted a complex sound to represent the din,” says Sinibaldi. “But ultimately the poem was a metaphor for my own thoughts and the unsettling nature of what they may be. It’s about wanting to be free of troubling thoughts, and the last line is so perfect: ‘The box is only temporary.’ The din is only temporary. It’s hopeful!”
In the two-part “Lady Lazarus” Sinibaldi contends with a poem that includes the lines:
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
“I think it’s just as hopeful,” he maintains. “It’s often interpreted as being about suicide, but I'm more interested in the imagery of the Phoenix, particularly in the last stanzas. I love the rising from the ashes/rebirth story and for me that’s what ‘Lady Lazarus’ is all about. It’s ultimately about vindication, about the hope and desire to rise above after extreme hurt. There’s something inevitable about that hope in this poem.”
Though the pieces are named for Plath’s individual Ariel poems or lines drawn from them, Sinibaldi’s purpose was less to represent them literally than to dwell on the bits and pieces that spoke to him most. “Separating some of the lines from the poems themselves had a kind of surreal effect for me,” he says. So “Black Sweet Blood Mouthfuls,” a reference to berries that occurs in the poem “Ariel,” finds Ferreira unspooling slow and majestic guitar chords, finally building to a huge mountainous distorted roar. “The Atrocity of Sunsets,” named for a line from the poem “Elm,” zeroes in on this passage:
I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets.
Scorched to the root
My red filaments burn and stand, a hand of wires.
Now I break up in pieces that fly about like clubs.
A wind of such violence
Will tolerate no bystanding: I must shriek.
The intense, rhythmically ambiguous “Cut” (Plath’s poetic response to severely cutting her finger); the hypnotic pulse of “Wintering in the Dark”; the drumless rubato expanses of the concluding “Elm”: each piece feeds into a larger accumulating whole, sonically fresh and wildly unpredictable, a platform for creative interplay at its most searching and egoless.
More information at www.gregsinibaldi.com