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Pianist, Composer Fred Hersch: 'Leaves of Grass'

In his 30-year career, musician Fred Hersch has performed in solo, duo, trio and quintet settings. In 2003 he received the prestigious Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship, which he used to work on his latest project, Leaves of Grass. For it, Hersch leads a 10-piece ensemble, which includes vocalists singing the words of Walt Whitman set to compositions by Hersch. He is touring the ensemble this month.




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Other segments from the episode on March 9, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 9, 2005: Interview with Dexter Filkins; Interview with Fred Hersch.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Dexter Filkins discusses his war reporting from Iraq

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Dexter Filkins of The New York Times, just won a George Polk award
for war reporting for his coverage of the battle of Fallujah. He was embedded
with a Marine battalion. The award citation, which praises his riveting,
firsthand account of the eight-day attack, says, quote, "His courageous
reports of the street-by-street fighting that killed six US Marines and
wounded 30 conveyed the hellish intensity of urban warfare under way in Iraq.

Filkins has been covering Iraq for The New York Times for the past two years.
In December, during a brief visit to the US, he talked with us about the
battle of Fallujah. After the holidays, he returned to Iraq to cover the
election and the resulting political drama. We spoke again yesterday at the
end of another brief trip back to the United States.

Well, Dexter Filkins, congratulations on your award. Have you stayed in touch
with any of the men who you were following, who were fighting in Fallujah?

Mr. DEXTER FILKINS (The New York Times): I have, I have. It's been quite an
experience since then. I've gotten dozens of e-mails and letters from the
families mostly of people who were killed there or wounded there and, also,
from the guys themselves and some of their families. But it's been quite
moving, all these letters that I've gotten. Just a few days ago I was invited
to go to a memorial service for the 13 guys in Bravo Company who were killed
there, and it just took place in this little gymnasium on the base. And the
parents of the dead were there. And the wounded and the whole unit, Bravo
Company, about 150 guys were all there.

And it was really something. You know, it was something to see them back home
but, also, you know, just to have to remember the dead. And, in particular,
you know, there were some guys there who literally saved my life a couple of
times, and so it was all very nice.

GROSS: Did you speak there?

Mr. FILKINS: I didn't. I didn't. I mean, I--there was kind of a reception
afterwards, and I got to speak to a lot of the parents.

GROSS: What are some of the things that they told you or that they wrote you?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, it was not what I would have expected. I've got a number
of--you know, I wrote several stories about the things that had happened, and
inevitably I wrote about some of the Marines who were killed and how they were
killed. And I had a number of parents come up to me and also write to me and
say, `Thank you very much for getting it down, and at least I know how my son
died.' And I--there's something counterintuitive about that. I mean, it's
very moving. But I just--you know, it's very painful, and it must be--I can
only imagine how painful it is for them to have a son killed. And yet they
were incredibly grateful, and I--it's--you know, again, it was all very

GROSS: Well, covering the elections has had its risks, and voting had its
risks as well. I would like you to read a short excerpt of an article you
wrote for The New York Times that was datelined election day, January 30th.
And if you could read just an excerpt from it for us...

Mr. FILKINS: (Reading) `It seemed simple enough, the ease with which Iraqi
marked their ballots and dropped them into the box. And the quiet with which
they filed out of their polling places bespoke a long-suppressed yearning
finally set free. If there were doubts about the ability of ordinary Iraqis
to grasp the first principles of democratic rule and about their own desire to
govern themselves after decades of tyranny, they seemed to evaporate in the
polling places of Karnda. All through the day the bombs kept exploding,
audible from inside the polling places. Most of the time the Iraqis did not
even bother to look up, so inured were they to violence and so immersed in the
democratic moment. "Do you hear that? Do you hear the bombs?" said Hassan
Jawad, a 33-year-old election worker at Lebanon High School calling over the
thud of an exploding shell. "We don't care. Do you understand? We don't
care. We all have to die," Mr. Jawad said. "To die for this, well, at least
I will be dying for something." And then Mr. Jawad got back to work guiding
an Iraqi woman's hand to the ballot box.'

GROSS: Were a lot of people hurt on election day?

Mr. FILKINS: There were. I mean, not as--I was struck by how amazing the
security was. There were no cars allowed on the road anywhere in the entire
country. So, for example, I went to a polling place in Karada, and I had to
walk. I mean, and I think I walked five miles to get to this polling place.
There were no cars allowed, which really, really helped. And there were
thousands of Iraqi soldiers on the street and police officers. Every
American, virtually, who was in the country was deployed. And so it was
really something.

I mean, it was really--you know, the great fear had been for months that this
was going to be a day when there would be, you know, 50 car bombs; that the
insurgents were going to just--were going to cut loose, and they were going to
unload everything they had. And it was going to wreck the election, and it
was going to turn the whole thing into a nightmare. And there were certainly
intelligence reports to that effect, you know, leading up to the election.
But it didn't work, really. I mean, there were a lot of car bombs, but--and
there were suicide bombers, and there were mortar attacks. But, for the most
part, they were ineffectual.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about what politics is like in Iraq now, after
the election. First, would you describe the Shiite coalition that won?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, it's kind of a grab bag. I mean, it's a big, sprawling
coalition with, you know, dozens of political parties, hundreds of candidates,
half of whom are independent and don't belong to any party. And then you've
got a number of parties in there, some of which are very Islamist-minded, some
of which are pretty secular, some of which despise each other and hate each
other and whose members have actually killed one another. And they were all
kind of brought together under the guiding hand of the Grand Ayatollah Ali
al-Sistani, who's the very powerful and revered religious leader in the
country. And he kind of brought them together and said, you know,
essentially, `This is our chance. We're the--you know, we're a majority of
the population here. Don't blow it. We've got a chance at power.'

And so this very various, diverse coalition is kind of just barely, barely
holding together. They just got a little bit more than 50 percent of the
vote. But the way the system is designed, the way it was designed, by the
Iraqis last year, with some American help, is 50 percent really isn't enough.
They need, basically, two-thirds of the votes in the National Assembly to put
together a government. And that's really important because what it means is
that they're forced to compromise and they're forced to strike deals with
other parties and other people who they don't necessarily see eye to eye with.
And so it's--that's why no government has yet emerged after the elections,
which took place on January 30th.

There's this very, very complicated and protracted bargaining process which is
going on, and I think, you know, you're probably going to have some more of
that--you know, probably a few more weeks of that before a government emerges.

GROSS: So who is the candidate that looks most likely to become prime

Mr. FILKINS: Well, at the moment, there's a man named Ibrahim Al-Jafari,
who's the head of the coalition, and he's been announced as their candidate
for prime minister. But I think it's a long way from being over. There's all
sorts of--many, many possibilities and many personalities who could still
emerge. I mean, you still have Ayad Allawi, who's the current prime minister.
He could very easily remain the prime minister. You have Ahmed Chalabi, who's
kind of circling out there with a number of supporters as well. And
there's--the bargaining and the dealing is so intense and it's so various and
there's so many different possibilities that it's kind of hard to say at this

But if you go to Jafari, he's lived in London, he's a medical doctor. He's
very much an Islamist, and he believes in and has spoke of the Islamization of
Iraqi society. So I think that's given a lot of the secular candidates pause,
and I think it's given the Americans pause as well. But, again, under the--I
think the hopeful thing is under the rules that were designed in the interim
Constitution, which they're all following at the moment, Jafari and his
coalition have to compromise to get into power. And so they're dealing with
some very secular-minded parties that they have to strike deals with.

GROSS: Well, what is the debate like now in Iraq about whether the government
should be secular or Islamist?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, it depends on who you talk to. And, in a way, if you just
took a snapshot of how the vote turned out in Iraq, it's almost evenly divided
between Islamic-minded parties--and that's mostly the Shiite parties; that's
about 50 percent--and a raid against that with almost the same number of votes
but not quite is a number of mostly secular parties. There's Ayad Allawi's
party. There's the Kurds--very secular. And so that's essentially what's
being worked out at the moment. You basically have a kind of a tug-of-war.

GROSS: Do you think that there's any likelihood of civil war in Iraq?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, I hate to try to predict, but there is, of course. I
mean, Iraqi politicians certainly speak of it, and they certainly talk about.
And the most likely scenario for civil war--however likely civil war is, the
most likely scenario for it is essentially the Sunnis vs. the other two
groups. In a very real way, you could say that civil war has already started
there. I mean, essentially what you have is, you know, the Kurds and the
Shiites, who are kind of on board with this democratic experiment, and the
Sunnis, who aren't. And the insurgency is essentially Sunni-dominated
insurgency vs. the Shiites and the Kurds. That, in a way, is a very--it's
already a low-level civil war. So it's a question, really, of how much more
intense it gets.

Personally, I don't see the signs yet that the country is headed towards, you
know, something extraordinarily more violent than what's already happening.
And I think that's probably unlikely, as long as the American troops stay

GROSS: Do you feel like the election changed the mind of many Iraqis who were
hostile toward the United States because of the United States' invasion and
overthrow of Saddam Hussein?

Mr. FILKINS: Yes. I think what happened on election day and why it was so
significant was the United States suddenly became less relevant. It just
wasn't as important, and it's not as important a player anymore in the eyes of
the Iraqis. And what I mean is before and, really, over the last--the 22
months leading up to that election, the Americans were the rulers of that
country. And so as the rulers, they were blamed for everything that went
wrong. Whether it was the electricity that didn't work or the water that
didn't work or the car bombings, America was blamed for everything.

And what I detected when I was there, beginning immediately with election day,
was, first, a kind of gratitude, which was a long time coming, for a lot of
Iraqis--kind of a gratitude towards the United States for making the election
actually happen. And, second, there was a sense that, `There's an Iraqi
government now,' I mean, even if there really isn't, `But this is our country
again, and we're in charge. And our guys are responsible, and we're going to
start blaming them, and we're not going to blame the Americans.' And so it's
a subtle but it's a pretty important shift. I think it has really--the
elections have kind of drained away a significant amount of the anger.

GROSS: My guest is New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins. He's been
covering Iraq for the past two years. He just won a George Polk award for war
reporting. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is New York Times reporter Dexter
Filkins. He's been covering Iraq for the past couple of years, and he's
winning a George Polk award for war reporting for his coverage of the battle
of Fallujah.

There's a lot of attention right now, I think, being paid to the American
checkpoints in Iraq as a result of the Italian journalist whose car was fired
on right after she was released from being a hostage in Iraq. And she was
injured, and one of the security men traveling with her was killed. Your
colleague, John Burns, wrote about this in an article in The Times, and he
said, `Next to the scandal of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, no other aspect of
the American military presence in Iraq has caused such widespread dismay and
anger among Iraqis.' I'm sure you've been through your share of

Mr. FILKINS: (Laughs) I have.

GROSS: Iraq. What's the problem?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, it's almost a perfectly insoluble problem, in a way. You
have, on one hand, Iraqis driving down the road, most of whom--the
overwhelming majority of whom are completely innocent and law-abiding people,
and they speak Arabic. On the other hand, you have American soldiers at a
checkpoint who've been attacked repeatedly, often by suicide bombers, and
they're terrified and they're very, very tense, and they don't speak Arabic.
And so you have, you know, often at night--and I've gone through these things
at night, and they're really scary--you just have a lot of miscommunication.
And everybody's--you know, the American soldiers, again, they've been
attacked, they've been attacked repeatedly. Their fingers are on the trigger.
They don't feel like they should have to sacrifice their lives again to a
suicide bomber.

And then--so often you have these terrible misunderstandings, and they're very
tragic, and Iraqis have been killed. And, you know, I've been through the
checkpoints myself, and they can be really terrifying. And that's not to take
anything away from the American soldiers because if I were in their shoes or
if anybody, I think, were in their shoes, they'd probably act the same way.
But they can be pretty terrifying. And I've interviewed Iraqi families that
have been shot up for not doing anything wrong except misunderstanding the
commands of the American soldiers, often in the darkness.

GROSS: Can you give us a sense of what it's like to go through one of those
American checkpoints?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, I'll give you one occasion. You know, you'll just be
driving down the road, and there'll be a checkpoint. There'll just be, you
know, a couple of soldiers standing there, and they'll be stopping cars and
pulling cars over and kind of, you know, checking IDs and that sort of thing.
Usually--I mean, overwhelmingly now they're manned by Iraqis, and I have to
say that's much more terrifying. They're nowhere--the Iraqi soldiers and the
Iraqi police officers are nowhere near as disciplined as the American soldiers
are. I mean, they really are scared, and they really do shoot with not very
much provocation.

But I'll give you one experience that I had that was--there's a town north of
Baghdad called Balad, and I was there--this is like a year ago, but I haven't
forgotten it. I was just driving down the road in a car with some Iraqis, and
we were coming up to an American checkpoint. And I don't know what happened.
You know, I still don't know what happened. We crossed some kind of imaginary
line, and it may have been that there was an American soldier who was telling
us to stop, and we didn't see him. But in an instant, the American soldiers,
who was sitting on top of a Humvee, swung his .50-caliber machine gun towards
our car and pulled back the lever. And I jumped out of the car and kind of
put my hands up and, you know, started yelling. I said, `Don't shoot. Don't
shoot.' And he didn't shoot. But, you know, it was that close. It was that

And, actually, if I could give you another example, which I think is
telling--and it would be better if we had video here because I could show you.
There's a common Iraqi hand signal to stop, and it's kind of holding your
fingers up in the air and putting them together. And for every Iraqi--for
every Arab, that means stop. The American military has a signal to stop, and
it's a closed fist. And so you'll often see--as you're driving towards one of
these checkpoints, you'll see an American soldier, very well-intentioned,
stick his fist out and point at a car, hoping that or expecting the Iraqi to
understand that that means stop. But to the Iraqis, it doesn't mean stop, and
so often they don't stop. And so, you know, that's just one illustration of
the sort of miscommunication that often happens at these checkpoints and which
often--or sometimes ends tragically.

GROSS: That does sound like the kind of thing that would be really easy to
fix. You know, like that gesture for stop, why couldn't the American military
start using the Iraqi hand signal for stop?

Mr. FILKINS: You're hitting on a very important point, which I think
is--what's happened over the two years that I've been there is a kind of
drawing back and a kind of a separation of one group from--or each group from
the other as the insurgency has become more violent and more bloody and more
ruthless. American soldiers can't engage the Iraqi population in the way that
they would like to and in the way that they used to. And so what you often
have--it just, you know, heightens the possibility that there are going to be
these kind of miscommunications going on 'cause, basically, the Iraqi people
and American soldiers don't really talk to each other and if only because
everybody's afraid, you know, of insurgents and of the suicide bombers.

It's really terrifying to be at one of those checkpoints because they are--I
mean, I'm thinking--in my mind right now, I'm thinking of driving to the
airport, the Baghdad airport. And there's a series of American--there's a
series of checkpoints that are usually manned by the Americans. They are
under attack almost every day, either by a suicide bomber, by a car bomber or
they come under fire or they come under mortar fire. And it's just
terrifying. I mean, it's absolutely relentless.

GROSS: The Italian journalist who we just mentioned, you know, had been
kidnapped by insurgents in Iraq and then released. And an interesting thing
about that is that she was, you know, an openly anti-war journalist who worked
for a Communist publication. So here they are kidnapping somebody who, you
know, probably would have seen herself as being on the same side they were,
not siding with their violent approach but, you know, against the invasion,
you know. Did it surprise that the insurgents were targeting a journalist who
was against the invasion?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, it did, and it didn't. If you look at who's been
kidnapped--the journalists who have been kidnapped in Iraq, for the most part,
it's European journalists. You've had a number of French journalists; there's
still a Frenchwoman who's in captivity. You've had Italian journalists. You
had the Italian NGO workers. But you haven't had the Americans. And so, in
that sense, it's kind of puzzling. I was actually--I happened to be in the
same neighborhood as the Italian journalist on the day that she was kidnapped.
I think these things and the evidence from a number of them suggest that these
are targets of opportunity. And I could be wrong here, but I think the
Italian journalist in this case had been. She'd been walking around for a
bit, and she'd been interviewing people.

And I--the evidence in a number of these cases suggests that people see a
Westerner, and they think, `We can get some money for this person if we kidnap
him or we kidnap her.' And, again, the evidence suggests that that's what
happened. Somebody grabs one of these journalists and then sells the
journalist or sells whatever Westerner to a really terrible and awful group,
which is willing to pay money for them. And so I think that's what's
happening. So it's not like, you know, they check their credentials first and
say, `Well, you work for a Communist newspaper that's anti-American. You can
go.' I mean, I think it's mostly, like, they see a Westerner, and people see
a lot of cash.

GROSS: Dexter Filkins is a reporter for The New York Times and has been
covering Iraq for the past two years. He'll be back in the second half of the
show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, we talk with composer and pianist Fred Hersch about his
musical settings for poems by Walt Whitman. Hersch's new CD, "Leaves of
Grass," features singer Kurt Elling. And we continue our conversation with
Dexter Filkins of The New York Times about reporting from Iraq.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with New York Times reporter
Dexter Filkins. He's been covering Iraq for the past two years. He just won
a George Polk award for war reporting for his coverage of the battle of
Fallujah. More recently, he covered the election and the resulting political
drama. I spoke with Filkins yesterday at the conclusion of a brief trip to
the US.

So you're about to go back to Iraq. How do you mentally prepare to go back?

Mr. FILKINS: It feels like--you know, in a lot of ways when you're out, it
feels like going back to, like, the fifth grade after a long summer vacation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FILKINS: And you just sort of brace yourself, you know, in the airplane.
When you fly in, in the airplane, to Baghdad international airport, it's not a
normal takeoff and landing. Basically, the plane lands like a dive bomber.
It doesn't come in gradually because they're afraid of--I mean, they're
routinely shot at, the commercial planes that come in. And so it's a special
passenger jet that has a South African crew, and they basically fly directly
overhead to the airport and then they dive. And they--it's just like a dive
bomber almost. It's almost a vertical drop into the airport. And so that
kind of gets you ready. As you do the vertical drop out of the sky into the
airport, you know that it's about to begin, you know. But I really try not to
think about it until the moment when, you know, the plane hits the Tarmac.

GROSS: Is it any harder or easier to get around now than it was a couple of
months ago when we last talked?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, the tension seems to have eased a bit, but, really, the
answer is no. Basically we can travel around Baghdad at great risk. In
mortal danger, we can go around Baghdad. Usually now, you know, we take
guards with us--armed guards, armored cars, that kind of thing. That's how
you get around Baghdad. That's as good as it gets now. It's very difficult
to move outside of Baghdad. When you go north or west, you're basically going
into the Sunni triangle. I mean, that's completely off limits. And even to
go south, to drive south, you've got to go through a string of really awful
towns, where people have been killed and kidnapped and beheaded and attacked
and any number of things.

So the sense I get is that it's starting to change gradually. And, you know,
we've had these kind of false dawns before. When Saddam was captured, things
seemed to be getting better, and then they got worse. When they handed over
sovereignty to the Iraqis back in June, things seemed to be getting better,
and then they got worse again. And it's hard to say at this point--it's too
early to say, really, whether at this moment the election has sort of
fundamentally changed things. It certainly feels--you know, in my gut, it
feels like it has. But I think it's too soon to tell. It hasn't changed in
terms of, like, our ability to move around; that's still incredibly difficult.

GROSS: Are you living in the Green Zone?

Mr. FILKINS: No, no, no. No. People often ask me that, you know.
Journalists don't live in the Green Zone, you know. We live in what's called
the Red Zone, which is the real Iraq, and, you know, we live in a house
that has enormous concrete walls, blast walls, around it, barbed wire, armed
guards, searchlights. We live in a house like that. And so, basically, every
time we leave the compound, as soon as we leave the compound, we're in danger.

GROSS: So how often a day do you leave?

Mr. FILKINS: I keep--you know, I leave every day. I mean, I go out every
day. It's just the nature--the nature of it has changed. I mean, it used to
be maybe you could just go out, you could go to a neighborhood like Karada,
where I went on election day, and you could walk around. And you could just
stop people on the sidewalk and say, `Well, what do you think about this?' you
know. And you can't do that now, for the most part. You could on election
day, which was what--one of the things that was so wonderful about it was just
this kind of street party atmosphere. But that's still, really, pretty much
off limits. You can do a little bit of it. I mean, you just have to be very
fast: Get out of your car, talk to a handful of people, get back in your car,
get out of there and maybe go to another neighborhood or something. Look in
the rearview mirror, make sure nobody's following you.

Typically when I go out now, I go in an armored car with a guard, and then I
have a car, chase car, behind with a couple of more guards. And, you know,
that's kind of the nature of working there. If you want to have any kind of
extended discussion with somebody, you've got to, basically, set up an
appointment and go to their house. They're usually too afraid to come to our
place, but go to their house and sit inside, you know. And so it's a very
sort of truncated experience.

GROSS: One more question. While you've been in the States on this brief
visit, if you've watched the news, what are some of the stories that have
struck you as being most ridiculous, considering what you're witnessing every
day in Iraq?

Mr. FILKINS: I think I would answer that in a different way. You know, I
have--I've been reading the papers and watching television really closely when
I've been here. And, you know, there's, you know, Michael Jackson and Martha
Stewart, and they're all kind of--you know, but those are kind of fun to watch
and fun to read about. But I think what is strangest for me--and I--'cause I
sort of feel like--I mean, I've been in Iraq for a couple years, and I sort of
feel--I almost feel like a veteran, I think, and I'm not. I mean, I don't
fight, and God knows I don't get shot at the way that those guys do.

But it's this--going into Iraq is like kind of an out-of-body experience. I
mean, you sort of leave the known world. You know, you get on this
spacecraft, and you go to this distant world, where, you know, there's no
phone lines and there's no connection with the real world. And it's this
incredibly intense experience, and I'm sure this is exactly what's
felt--pretty close to what is felt by American soldiers. And you're in this
thing, and it's, you know, incredibly intense and it's very violent and people
are dying and so much is at stake. And then you come out, and you land in
America, where everything is so easy, and it's nice and it's comfortable.
And, yeah, you know, the biggest thing going on is Martha Stewart and Michael

And what's weird is that if you're in a place like Manhattan, where I am now,
people don't really talk about the war very much, you know. And then you can
go to a place like Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, the Marine base there, and
it's--you know, the whole area--Jacksonville, North Carolina--it's all
military families. There's big billboards, and everybody's involved in it.
And so there's kind of a weird--I could be wrong, but, I mean, it just seems
like there's a weird disconnect in a lot of the country over this war; that
the sacrifices are being borne unequally by people, and there isn't a lot of
sacrifices made by some others. And so that results in this kind of
bifurcated, you know, strange, sort of two-tiered nature, you know, of the
country when you come back. And it's just very jarring. It really is.

GROSS: Dexter Filkins, thank you so much. Good luck to you, and thank you.

Mr. FILKINS: Thank you. Thank you very much.

GROSS: And congratulations again on your award.

Mr. FILKINS: Oh, thank you.

GROSS: Dexter Filkins is a reporter for The New York Times and has been
covering Iraq for the past two years. He just won a George Polk award for war
reporting. Our conversation was recorded yesterday.

Coming up, composer and pianist Fred Hersch talks about setting to music poems
by Walt Whitman. Hersch's new CD, "Leaves of Grass," features singer Kurt
Elling. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Pianist and composer Fred Hersch talks about setting
to music poems by Walt Whitman

Composer and pianist Fred Hersch has a new CD that features his musical
settings for poems from Walt Whitman's book "Leaves of Grass," which was first
published 150 years ago. Whitman was one of America's most influential poets
and has been described as singing about a new country in a new voice. That
voice inspired such Beat poets as Allen Ginsburg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Fred Hersch has been described in The New Yorker as a poet of a pianist. He
won a Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship for composition two years ago. Hersch
has recorded more than 20 albums as a bandleader or soloist and has produced
four recordings to benefit groups fighting AIDS. His new CD, "Leaves of
Grass," features eight musicians and two singers, Kate McGarry and Kurt
Elling. Here's "Song of Myself Pt. 1: I Celebrate Myself."

(Soundbite of "I Celebrate Myself")

Mr. KURT ELLING: (Singing) I celebrate myself and sing myself. I celebrate
myself and sing myself. And what I assume you shall assume, for every atom
belonging to me as good belongs to you. Stop this day and night with me, and
you shall possess the origin of all forms. You shall possess the good of the
Earth and sun. You shall no longer take things for second or third hand, nor
look through the eyes of the dead, nor read of the specters in books. You
shall not look through my eyes, either, nor take things from me. You shall
listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.

GROSS: I asked Fred Hersch why he wanted to set Walt Whitman poems to music.

Mr. FRED HERSCH (Composer and Pianist): Walt Whitman was one of the great
American rebels. He was a person of contradiction. He also was a relentless
self-promoter and, from all accounts, a pretty cranky person. But in looking
through "Leaves of Grass," there's so much that Whitman said in 1855, which is
150 years ago, that's timely today about real love of freedom and about really
being yourself and not apologizing to anybody for it and really embracing all
creatures and loving nature. There's a universality in Whitman's message and
a beautiful gift of language. Even though it's not rhymed and metered, it is
definitely poetic.

GROSS: I'm interested in the process that you used to find the right musical
voice for these poems. I mean, what you've written here could be described as
a song cycle or art song. These are not songs that follow, like, your
standard 32-bar structure, you know, an AABA structure where there's a bridge.
So you're writing in a really different style than the songs you grew up on
and the standards you're used to playing.

Mr. HERSCH: Certainly. As I said, Whitman has really no meter or rhyme, so
my process--to try to find melodies in things that were songlike, my process
was to just look at the poems, try to find--away from the piano, look at the
poems and try to find internal rhythms and contours. And my rationale for
doing this for a chamber ensemble of jazz musicians, who are also
extraordinary readers and improvisors, and two jazz singers as opposed to
classical baritone and soprano, was I wanted the words to be intelligible
without looking at the text, and I wanted the singers not to have to push
their sound. Also, this is an ensemble of eight instruments, which is about
as large an ensemble as I figured I could get to work without a conductor. I
occasionally conduct from the piano, but I wanted this to be an ensemble
piece, a chamber piece, and I wanted it to have some dramatic content. So it
was a really long and unusual process of just how to extract melodic material
from something that, you know, doesn't have meter or rhyme.

GROSS: I want to play another song from your song cycle of Walt Whitman
poems, and this is one that starts with the line, `Why should I wish to see
God?' And before we play it, I want to say, you know, the poetry in this is
so beautiful, and it's so rich. I mean, you're setting to music rhymes like
`In the faces of men and women, I see God, and in my own face in the glass, I
find letters from God dropped in the street and every one is signed by God's
name.' That's some pretty heavy stuff to be writing music to. I mean, you
can make something like that sound incredibly schmaltzy and--I don't
know--either new-agey or sentimental if you wanted. I mean, you have to be
careful with language like that.

Mr. HERSCH: I tried to use some restraint, but, you know, there are so many
iconic lines in this entire piece. Like, `I believe a leaf of grass is no
less than the journey work of the stars.' It's saying: Look, you know, it's
a miracle, all these things on our planet, and we don't even notice them. `I
celebrate myself, and what I assume you shall assume, for every atom belonging
to me as good belongs to you.' I mean, it's just a great way of saying, `Hey,
you know, we're all in the same boat, and let's, you know, enjoy the ride.'
But this section about `Why should I wish to see God' comes sort of toward the
climax of the "Song of Myself" section, which is a good 30-plus minutes of
Kurt Elling singing amazingly.

GROSS: OK. Well, we'll hear singer Kurt Elling, and this is from Fred
Hersch's new CD "Leaves of Grass," his song cycle of poems by Walt Whitman.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ELLING: (Singing) Why should I wish to see God, better than on this day?
I see something of God each hour of the 24. And each moment then in the faces
of men and women, I see God and in my own face in the glass, I find letters
from God dropped in the street and every one signed by God's name. And I
leave them where they are, for I know that wherever I go, others will
punctually come forever and ever.

And as to you, death, and you, bitter hug of mortality, it is idle to try to
alarm me.

(Singing) I depart as air. I shake my locks at the runaway sun. I effuse my
flesh in eddies and drift it in lacy jags. I bequeath myself to the dirt to
grow from under the grass I love. If you want me again, look for me under
your boot soles.

GROSS: That's music from pianist and composer Fred Hersch's new CD "Leaves of
Grass," his song cycle of Walt Whitman poems.

I think you made a really good choice with Kurt Elling on this. Why did you
choose him?

Mr. HERSCH: Well, I mean, there are very few male singers in jazz who, first
of all, have the musicianship. I mean, most of what he's singing is written.
There's very little improvisation. As a jazz singer, of course, he brings his
own personality and inflection to the words, but he's pretty much playing the
notes that I wrote. There's a couple places where he does some light scat
singing, but that's not really what it's about. Kurt--we know each other
socially. This is the first project we have done together. Besides great
musicianship and an extraordinary voice, he has great diction. You can really
hear what he's saying, always, and he's very connected to the words. His
background, which we found out as we got to know each other, is--he was, I
believe, a divinity student at one time and he is a poetry fanatic. I was at
his home in Chicago and there was just a wall of poetry books. He's also an
accomplished lyricist. So we have a lot of overlap with jazz and new music
and literature. And frankly, he was the person that I really wrote this part
for. And it takes a lot of presence to say things like, `I celebrate myself
and sing myself.'

GROSS: You know, a line in this particular poem that I think is just
beautiful is, `And as to you, death, and you, bitter hug of mortality, it is
idle to try to alarm me.' That's really beautiful, and don't you just wish
you could believe that, to have that attitude?

Mr. HERSCH: Yes. Yes. Well, you know, I mean, living in New York City, as
I do, you know, you got to think that sometimes, you know. If we're not
really here and present for our lives, I mean, what's the point?

GROSS: We...

Mr. HERSCH: And if you don't really go for it in your life, you know, you'll
die and you'll never know what might have been. So there's no reason to hold

GROSS: My guest is composer and pianist Fred Hersch. His new CD, "Leaves of
Grass," features his musical settings of poems by Walt Whitman. We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is composer and pianist Fred Hersch. His new CD, "Leaves of
Grass," features his musical settings for poems by Walt Whitman that were
first published 150 years ago.

Now you said you've chosen these particular poems by Whitman because you think
of them as poems about love, but I think they're also poems about a kind of
sense of the mystic, you know, a kind of mystical sense of being, and also
poems about, you know, mortality. And I'm wondering if you feel drawn to
songs and to poems about mortality, and I ask that because I know you have a
lot of friends, you know a lot of people who have died of AIDS. You've done a
lot of work in fund-raising benefits and CDs for people with AIDS. You've
been HIV positive since, like, the first half of the '90s.

Mr. HERSCH: 1986, yeah.

GROSS: Oh, even longer than I thought.

Mr. HERSCH: Or '7.

GROSS: That's a really long time.

Mr. HERSCH: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: So, I mean, does this sense of, like, poetry about mortality really

Mr. HERSCH: Absolutely. You know, I think just my personal journey as one
fighting HIV for all these years, of course, in the late '80s and early '90s,
before there was much one could take, you know, we all felt--those of us who
had the virus--that, you know, every month could be our last, and people were
dropping like flies, and though I'm kind of a walking chemistry experiment,
I'm still here, and I'm going to be 50 years old this fall, and I never
expected to live to be 40.

Now that being said, I'm not one of these people that wakes up in the morning
and jumps out of bed and says, `Thank God I'm alive,' you know. I want my
coffee, you know, and I get cranky, like everybody else. But I have a deeper
appreciation, certainly, for the time that's been given to me. And as my
career has expanded to include lately composing a lot of concert music, you
know, pieces for piano, violin and cello trio and pieces for concert pianists
and settings of poems and collaborations with everybody from Renee Fleming
to Christopher O'Riley to Bill Frisell, you know, I try to get as much as I
can out of each experience and try to find new challenges and new ways of
keeping things interesting for myself as a musician and as a citizen of the
world. You know, I do try to raise money for causes and be a friend to the
community to the best of my ability.

GROSS: I'd like to end with the final poem from your song cycle of Walt
Whitman poems, and I'd like you to say a few words about this. It's a duet
between the two singers on the album, Kurt Elling and Kate McGarry.

Mr. HERSCH: This is a late poem, "After the Dazzle of Day is Done." It's
only four lines, and I sort of crafted it almost as an anthem, but to me, what
the poem is really saying is, you know, `You need silence to hear music.' And
when all is said and done, the poem reads, `After the dazzle of day is done,
only the dark, dark night shows to my eyes the stars. After the clangor of
organ majestic or chorus or perfect band, silent, athwart my soul, moves the
symphony true.' And to me, it's saying, you know, we all have that capacity
to hear and feel music and how universal that is. And it was just a way of
sort of wrapping up this whole long, extended composition. And it is one of
the only two places on the disc and in the piece where the singers sing
together. They sing in canon here, and they do sing beautifully together.

GROSS: Well, Fred Hersch, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. HERSCH: My pleasure, always.

GROSS: Fred Hersch's new CD is called "Leaves of Grass." He performs with
his ensemble Friday night at Carnegie Hall and Saturday night at the Kimmel
Center in Philadelphia.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of "After the Dazzle of Day Is Done")

Mr. ELLING: (Singing) After the dazzle of day is done, only the dark, dark
night shows to my eyes the stars. After the clangor of organ majestic or
chorus or perfect band, silent, athwart my soul, moves the symphony true.
After the dazzle of day is done...

Ms. KATE McGARRY: (Singing) After the dazzle of day is done...

Mr. ELLING: (Singing) ...only the dark...

Ms. McGARRY: (Singing) ...only the dark...

Mr. ELLING: (Singing) ...dark night...

Ms. McGARRY: (Singing) ...night...

Mr. ELLING: (Singing) ...shows to my eyes the stars.

Ms. McGARRY: (Singing) ...shows to my eye the stars.

Mr. ELLING and Ms. McGARRY: (Singing in unison) After the clangor of organ
majestic or chorus or perfect band, silent, athwart my soul, moves the
symphony true.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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