Mark David Ashworth: Repurposing Poetry

Originally published on May 24, 2011 1:05 pm

Words and music perform an elegant dance of meaning and dreaming in the work of San Francisco's Mark David Ashworth, who explores themes of the natural world, ancient colonization and personal insight. Like most singer-songwriters, Ashworth writes his own lyrics. But he also likes to set pre-existing poems to music.

As Ashworth explains in this interview, he enjoys Franz Schubert's early-19th-century song cycle Winterreise and the Neruda Songs of late contemporary composer Peter Lieberson, but his own setting of poetry has been particularly influenced by musicians most Americans don't know. Ashworth has spent time in Mexico and Peru, and was impressed by the Nueva canción tradition of Spanish songwriters Joan Manuel Serrat and Adolfo Celdran, as well as Cuban songwriters Pablo Milanés and Silvio Rodríguez.

In his own way, like those Spanish-language songwriters, Ashworth is, as he says here, making "pop songs out of high-class poetry." He has drawn on English-language poets new and old, and in this session performs his settings of poems by Mary Oliver, William Carlos Williams and Robert Louis Stevenson.

The Stevenson setting is "Bright Is the Ring of Words," which also serves as the title of Ashworth's latest album. That record is a rich listening experience, subtly orchestrated with strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion. For these performances in WNYC's Manhattan studio, Ashworth brought along just two musicians to perform with him: Taylor Jacobs plays electric guitar and Crystal Fulbright sings. Both are masterful in their supporting roles, greatly enhancing Ashworth's own voice, nylon-string guitar, charango and piano.

I was struck by Ashworth's album, and pleased to bring him into the studio to speak with him about his exploration of words and music. You can download the entire session and watch three videos from the performance on the Spinning On Air website.

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